Democrats Stand Fast in Senate, Lose Two Seats in Lower Chamber

Colleen O'Dea | November 5, 2013


The Christie tidal wave, as one Democratic leader called it, did not wash away the Democrats’ legislative majorities.

As of midnight, it appeared the party lost only two seats in the Assembly -- one in the 1st district in South Jersey and the other in the 38th in the North -- and none in the Senate. That’s a far cry from the 14-seat gain the Republicans made in 1985, when Gov. Thomas H. Kean won re-election in what remains the largest landslide in modern state history.

Last night’s results still leave the Democrats with majorities of 24-16 in the Senate and 46-34 in the Assembly. But as with the past four years, that does not mean gridlock, since this same Democratic majority passed much of Gov. Chris Christie’s political program, such as pension and health benefit reforms. But despite Christie’s commanding win, the Democrats also pushed through this year’s ballot measure, a hike of the minimum wage.

"This was certainly a tremendous personal victory for Chris Christie, but it didn't translate into a victory for the Republican Party," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University and a professor there.

Aside from the overwhelming support for the governor, New Jerseyans "voted for Democrats across the state," Dworkin said. "They held their state Senate seats, and in the Assembly, one lost because of self-inflicted political baggage, and another race is so close that it will certainly go to a recount."

In the 1st Legislative District, Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi defeated Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Albano by 1,335 votes. Albano created an ethics problem for himself with a complaint against a state trooper, who had ticketed him for speeding.

In the 38th, Democratic Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, one of two openly gay legislators, appeared to have lost by only 171 votes to Rochelle Park Committeeman Joseph Scarpa, a Republican.

State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-3rd), who won his own re-election fight, said voters didn't want a "rubber-stamp Legislature” and so chose Democratic lawmakers.

"Understand, we’re going to fight, you know what I mean, unlike the Republicans in the Legislature who just nod and say 'yes' and go forward; understand that we never did that," Sweeney said. "We’re not afraid to step up and speak our minds and disagree. It’s OK -- that makes better policy."

Sweeney said voters don’t want the Legislature to support Christie's positions, cutting funds to women's health and in opposition to a millionaire's tax, adding: "They do not want to grant the governor a Supreme Court that was going to be molded in his image."

Sweeney expressed scorn for Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean's pre-election predictions that the Republicans would gain seats.

"All I know is Tom Kean said, ‘I got five,’" Sweeney said, referring to Kean's prediction of gaining enough seats to gain the majority. He said Kean has to explain to the other Republican senators why "he decided to spend a million dollars against me that probably would have been better spent in other places. I'm very glad he spent the million down by me." Sweeney ended up winning with 55 percent of the vote.

Despite the expected Christie juggernaut, pundits had not expected the Democrats to lose many seats. All across the state, legislative Democrats in hotly contested districts have been talking about their own bipartisan credentials, how they worked with Christie to get things done, Dworkin said. He had predicted that the popular bipartisanship them would help the Democratic majorities maintain control.

“The current legislative map favors the Democrats,” Dworkin said. “In all of these races, Democratic incumbents” were trying to overcome the massive Christie victory.

Still, there was a valid question: Would the popular Republican governor, who would be atop the ticket, be able to pull other Republicans along on his coattails, especially since Republican legislative leaders had vowed to fight in districts not usually considered battlegrounds?

There was cause for concern: In 1985, when popular Gov. Thomas H. Kean won re-election with 70 percent of the vote, the Republicans gained a net 14 seats in the Assembly to take control of the lower house with a 50-30 majority. Democrats lost some unthinkable elections in Essex, Hudson, and Bergen counties. Senators were not up for re-election that year. Those gains were temporary, since the GOP lost eight seats in 1987, although it still held control of the Assembly. In 1989, when Democrat Jim Florio was elected governor, the party retook control of the lower house.

Hope for a similar Christie landslide this year helped fuel spending -- $48.6 million for the primary and general elections spent by candidates and their committees and millions more spent by so-called independent groups seeking to influence the races.

The greatest amount raised and spent through October 25 was in the 3rd District in South Jersey. Hardly considered a close contest in most elections, this is Sweeney's home. Two years ago he was re-elected with about 56 percent of the vote, but Sen. Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. had vowed to challenge Sweeney on his home turf. His opponent, Niki Trunk, was a former Harrison Township committeewoman and former employee of the state comptroller’s office. Trunk had raised $354,000 in her individual account and $157,000 with her GOP Assembly running mates. But the Democratic incumbents had far more. In total, $3.6 million was raised and $3.1 million spent by the 3rd District candidates, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Like the last legislative election, the 2nd District, which covers part of Atlantic County, and the 38th, straddling Bergen and Passaic counties, were also hotly contested. Despite all the money, talk, and political ads, neither contest was especially close in 2011, but that was without Christie’s name on the ballot.

This year, Sen. James Whelan,(D-2nd) had a well-known challenger in Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles. And Fernando Alonso, up against Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38th) had greater name recognition, having run -- and lost -- for Assembly last year. The Democratic ticket there also had an opening, with Connie Wagner’s resignation from the Assembly and Paramus Councilman Joseph Lagana replacing her.

The latest figures from ELEC placed the 38th as second-most expensive -- $3 million raised, $2.8 million spent. The 2nd came in fourth place, with $2.6 million raised and $2.2 million spent.

Whelan, whose seat was considered in play, cruised to victory, while the Assembly contests in this split district were nail-biters. Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown led the field, but his fellow incumbent John Amodeo, also a Republican, was only 379 votes ahead of Northfield Mayor Vincent Mazzeo, with Longport Mayor Nick Russo trailing all.

"The clerk's website shows me as the winner, but it's a close race," Whelan said.

Like Whelan, Gordon won by a relatively comfortable margin. The race for the two Assembly seats was very close, with just 300 votes separating the top vote-getter, Democrat Joseph Lagana, seeking his first term in the Assembly, and its lowest, incumbent Eustace. The close results make a recount likely.

Ranking third-most expensive was the 14th, where, according to ELEC, the candidates raised $2.7 million and spent $2.5 million. Democratic incumbents, Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Daniel Benson, had no trouble winning re-election two years ago. In 2011, Greenstein faced Richard Kanka, known for his advocacy of Megan’s Law after his daughter was killed by a convicted pedophile. This time around, though, former Sen. Peter Inverso, sought to retake the seat he had held for 16 years. This time, the results were tight for Greenstein, in particular, but she, Benson and DeAngelo all won.

Another district not normally in play was the 18th, where the Democrats’ hold on gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s open Senate seat was in doubt as East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl switched parties to run as a Republican against Assemblyman Peter Barnes, looking to take Buono’s place. That also left open Barnes’ seat, for which the Democrats nominated Nancy Pinkin, an East Brunswick councilwoman. Barnes won with 52 percent of the votes. Pinkin and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan also won, by even larger margins.

The 1st District race for one Assembly seat was close in 2011, with Democrat Matthew Milam beating Fiocchi by less than 1,000 votes. Milam resigned, replaced by Bob Andrzejczak. Fiocchi was back as part of the team, hammering at the entire blue ticket over Albano’s ethics investigation. Albano appeared to be the only casualty in this district that is always a contest due to its unique circumstances -- Republican voters outnumber Democrats, yet the Democrats hold all the seats.

Another district always in play is the 7th, which is the only district beside the 2nd with split representation. Democrats hold a decided voter registration advantage, as well as the two Assembly seats. But Sen. Diane Allen, a moderate Republican known to buck her party -- she voted with the Democrats in support of same-sex marriage -- has been in office for 15 years and won by a comfortable margin last time, even outpolling Democratic Assembly candidates Herb Conaway and Troy Singleton. All three incumbents won easily.

Over the past three weeks, an unexpected battleground had emerged in the 16th district. It was the only race where Republican incumbents were being “forced to play defense,” Dworkin said. The district has a sizable Democratic base, but has been a Republican stronghold for a long time. He said it was only in the aftermath of the government shutdown that polling began to tighten. Democrat Marie Corfield fared best of the Democrats, but still lost by almost 5,000 votes.

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