Some Surprises as Republicans Pick Up Assembly Seats, Plus Senate Seat in South

COLLEEN O'DEA | NOVEMBER 6, 2019

NJ Spotlight

Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick, with running mate Nancy Munoz and Senate Republican leader Tom Kean, declares victory.

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Democrats appear to have lost at least three and as many as five seats in the New Jersey Legislature, including the only Senate race on the ballot. And they did not flip any of the three districts they were targeting in this year’s election, which took place yesterday.

With 100% of districts reporting, Republicans captured the Senate seat in the southernmost 1st District, as well as both Assembly seats there. They also held a smaller lead in the neighboring 2nd, a split district with a Republican senator that includes Atlantic City. That race, however, had not been called with fewer than 800 votes separating the second and third place finishers and mail-in and provisional ballots apparently uncounted as of midnight. Final results there may not be available for several days.

Democrats were also unable to flip seats in three districts they had been targeting, although they did keep control of the Assembly seats in two others considered competitive.

Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the state Republican Party, took a victory lap at Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick’s election night party. “We’ve done a great job as a state party, laying a foundation for the future,” he said. “I am proud of our message (and) our candidates statewide.”

It was a relatively quiet election season in much of the state and Democratic control of the Assembly was never in doubt. The party went into Election Day holding 54 of 80 seats and will likely start the new session in January with a reduced but still significant majority of 50 to 30. Paradoxically, the loss of seats in South Jersey could improve Gov. Phil Murphy’s standing, as the South Jersey Democrats who lost seats have sided with fellow South Jerseyan Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) against Murphy in an ongoing intraparty feud.

More mail-in ballots

Turnout in off-year elections like this one tends to be low, but this time around it appears to have been higher than in 2015 — the last time the Assembly topped balloting — particularly in areas with hot contests. With about 97% of districts reporting, it appeared about a quarter of voters cast ballots, but as the rest of the votes — including mail-in and provisional votes — are counted that turnout percentage is bound to rise. Four years ago,  just 22% of those registered voted. But expanded use of mail-in ballots seems to have contributed to an increase this time and more of those ballots remain to be counted, as all ballots postmarked by Election Day are still processed if received by end of business tomorrow. Democrats hold a wide lead in voter registration in the state, with nearly 1 million more choosing blue than red, and the party has done a better job at getting its voters to use mail-in ballots.

The sole statewide ballot question, to provide an annual $250 property-tax break for some veterans living in continuing care retirement communities, won easily with the support of more than three-quarters of the electorate, despite having posed some confusion among voters. Backed by a small group of veterans living in CCRCs, it was supported by neither widespread campaigning nor spending, even while NJ 101.5 morning talk show host Bill Spadea made last-minute arguments against the question.

“It’s something that had to be done,” said Gary Baldwin, a retired Air Force officer who spent 26 years in the military, who has been fighting for this change for 18 years. “It’s the right thing to do. Many of my veterans were denied this opportunity. It really righted the wrong, it corrected a discriminatory thing in the law. Very happy for these veterans. So many veterans passed away from WW2, but those who are still alive deserved this.”

Republicans had called this election a referendum on the first two years of the Murphy administration, complaining the governor is too liberal and attacking in particular his pro-immigrant policies and cuts in school aid to wealthy districts. Gov. Phil Murphy had embraced the challenge.

“It certainly is at least partly a referendum, and we welcome that because we like where we are headed,” Murphy said Monday. “We inherited a mess. And we have done what we said we would do. We have invested in education, we will fix NJ Transit if it kills me, $15 an hour minimum wage, paid sick leave, funding Planned Parenthood, standing up to protect the environment, strong gun safety laws, the strongest in the nation … We have not accomplished everything yet, but we have chopped through a lot of it.”

Dems contended in historically red districts

Steinhardt, the GOP state chair, saw the results differently. “The governor’s policies are literally breaking New Jersey’s families apart,” he said. “That’s the legacy Phil Murphy is leaving. That’s why our candidates are winning races.”

But Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it is noteworthy that Democrats were even contenders in some historically red districts.

“Normally, you should lose seats if you are the party in power,” Murray said. “Going into the night, we thought perhaps this would be a sign that the Republican brand in this state is dead, but we are seeing some signs of life.”

Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said that — unlike last year’s congressional midterm elections — this year’s state races mostly were not about Donald Trump.

“With the probable exception of LD1, the President’s strong disapproval numbers aren’t particularly helpful to Republicans running in New Jersey this year,” he said. “Most voters don’t see this election as a referendum on the White House … In LD1, a district that Trump won, the President is much more of an asset and his robo-call on behalf of Republican candidates may make a difference in spurring GOP turnout.”

Testa’s decisive Senate win in 1st

In the Senate race where Trump made that call, in the southernmost 1st District, Republican attorney Mike Testa won a decisive victory over Democratic incumbent Bob Andrzejczak, 53% to 47%. Andrzejczak had left the Assembly to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jeff Van Drew when the latter was elected to Congress in 2018, necessitating the need for a special election.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in that district even though it had been blue for the last several years. Assembly Democrats Bruce Land and Matthew Milam also lost to Republicans Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan by smaller but seemingly insurmountable margins.

Both parties and independent groups spent heavily there, making the 1st the most expensive race this year by the count of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, with $2.5 million spent through late October and more added in the final days of the campaign. Republican committees spent more than $400,000, while the pro-Democrat General Majority PAC (political action committee) tied to South Jersey power boss George Norcross spent more than $600,000 independently to support the Democratic candidates.

General Majority also spent heavily in the 2nd District, one of only three in the state with split representation; voter registration there leans blue. The state senator is Republican Chris Brown, but it is unclear who will be joining him. Republicans Phil Guenther and John Risley appear to have defeated Democratic incumbents Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato in the regular count. But the Atlantic City Press reported that  Mazzeo and Armato were ahead in mail-in ballots, which did not appear to be included in the totals reported by the Atlantic County clerk. And there will be provisional ballots and likely more mail-in ballots still to count.

Republicans held onto their seats in another split district, the 8th centered in Burlington County, which the Democrats had thought they had a good chance to flip. Voter registration in the 8th leans blue and Democrats came close to winning a seat there two years ago without really trying. This time, only one incumbent Republican was on the ballot. (State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego switched parties and became a Democrat earlier this year.)

GOP overcomes Dem money advantage in 8th

Challengers Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca, both lawyers and political novices, spent more than $686,000 on their own and General Majority PAC laid out at least another $650,000 for mailers and ads in the 8th. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), whose own district is safely blue, also spent time campaigning for the Democrats yesterday. The Republicans, Assemblyman Ryan Peters and former Burlington sheriff Jean Stanfield, spent less than half what their opponents did, though they did have the support of the state’s largest teachers union, the NJEA.

The appearance on the ballot of Tom Giangiulio Jr. of Waterford, an independent who ran under the slogan MAGA Conservative, did not impact the Republicans, as some had expected.

Similarly, two men running as conservative independents in the 21st District, which includes Union County, did not stop the re-election of Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district despite its longtime GOP representation, and the Democratic challengers were well-funded. But the Republicans survived the night, with 2,600 votes separating the second and third place finishers.

Bramnick and Munoz came out around 10 p.m. to declare victory before a group of supporters gathered at the Italian American Club of Westfield. Bramnick credited a message focused on civility and “talking to citizens and taxpayers in a respectable way” for helping to deliver their victory.

Bramnick and Munoz: ‘the right message’

“I’m looking forward to two years of respectful and civil dialogue,” he said.

Munoz also said she and Bramnick had “the right message.”

“We’re so extraordinarily happy tonight,” Munoz said. “Let’s get New Jersey back to the state we can all be proud to live in — and can afford to live in.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), who was also at the victory party in Westfield, said Republicans had success emphasizing the affordability issue.

“Across the state, these commonsense Republicans won,” Kean said.

By contrast, the Union County Democratic gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn in Springfield may have epitomized the evening for the majority party. Most of the Democratic candidates running for various state and local seats celebrated their wins, but in the headlining race for the Assembly’s two District 21 seats, it seemed to end in disappointment.

Challengers Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman weren’t ready to concede just yet, with provisional and mail-in votes still to be counted, but their speeches were at best cautious in their optimism.

“We knew this would be close, so we are hardly surprised,” Mandelblatt said. “We are going to make sure every vote is counted, and when it is done, we are confident we will flip LD21.”

A win for Bucco, already sworn in as senator

Another red battleground where Democrats thought they had a good chance was the 25th District, based in Morris County. The death of the district’s former senator in September complicated that race for the Republicans. The GOP candidates were political newcomer Brian Bergen and someone to be determined later because the other Republican on the ballot, Anthony Bucco, had already been sworn into the state Senate to succeed his father. Still Bucco was the top vote getter.

The Democrats had run an aggressive campaign and hoped to capitalize, arguing the GOP were asking voters to elect an unknown. A flip was also considered possible in this district because voters last year helped elect Mikie Sherrill, the first Democrat in more than 30 years, to the 11th Congressional District.

The only bright spots at the state level for the Democrats among the close races were in the 11th in Monmouth County and the 16th that spans four central Jersey counties. These started the decade solidly red and Democrats only began flipping those seats four years ago. The Democratic incumbents won in both.

It’s unclear that Murphy played a role in any of wins in the close races. He began campaigning for candidates and rallying the get-out-the-vote effort last Friday and spent most of his time in safe north Jersey Democratic areas. The governor and his wife Tammy Murphy did, however, make some stops in Union and Morris counties.

Coughlin, who does not always agree with Murphy, recognized that the night was not a slam dunk for his party.

“I am happy that so many Democrats returned and that we were overwhelmingly successful,” he said in an interview at the 21st District Democrats’ election gathering.

Still, when asked whether he expected to pick up any seats for his party’s majority, Coughlin said: “I have not gotten the final count yet, but I have not heard that we have. . . That ball is still up in the air.”

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