InsiderNJ Updates on Competitive Battleground Elections

Battleground election combatants in LD1.

Below is an update on the condition of the state’s most competitive battleground elections, with a priority on the legislative races, and inclusion of Somerset County, a county control contest.

Testa, right and Andrzejczak
Testa, right and Andrzejczak

The 1st District

A Stockton Poll came out last week that shows incumbent state Senator Bob Andrzejczak (D-1) leading by double digits. No one believes it, including Republican challenger Michael Testa. “I don’t put a lot of stock in the Stockton Poll,” he told a crowd at Monday night’s debate. Sources in both camps see flaws in the poll and anticipated a much closer Nov. 5th contest. Most Democrats see a very close race, but give their man the edge by about five points. Republicans see Testa, chair of the Cumberland County GOP and a Vineland attorney who has enlivened Republicans with an impressive campaign, with a razor thin victory. The presence of Republican State Party Chair Doug Steinhardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) proved the seriousness of GOP intentions. In a district friendly to President Donald J. Trump, Andrzejczak is running as a war hero whose lawn signs look almost identical to the red and white signs of the GOP Team. Testa has maintained a message of tying Andrzejczak to Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, who is very unpopular in the district. Sources describe the senate race as closer than the assemby race, where Democrats have the edge and (along with LD2 and LD11) have received strong, prioritized, foundation-building financial support from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC). Democratic candidates in LD16, LD8, LD25, LD21, and LD39, have also received significant battleground DACC funding.

LaPlaca, Natale, Peters, and Stanfield.
LD8 slates: LaPlaca, Natale, Peters, and Stanfield.

The 8th District

Long run by GOP kingpin Glenn Paulsen and then his handpicked disciple Bill Layton, the Burlington County Republican Party is in turmoil as Democrats look to increase their gains in the maintenance of county government and seek full 5-0 control of the freeholder board. Even Paulsen went to a law firm with Democratic ties. But most sources in both parties acknowledge the genuine skills of Sheriff Jean Stanfield and her running mate, incumbent Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-8), whose cults of personality have them competing (despite organizational fractures) in a district that U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-3) won last year, in a county where Donald Trump is far less popular than he is in the 1st District. Endorsements commonly sought by Democrats (including those from the NJEA and Sierra Club) are not on the side of Democratic challengers Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale, who hope the emerging party organization – stronger by appearances in this cycle than that of the Republicans’ – springboards them to victory. Despite visible GOP jitters, sources in both camps describe the race as too close to call. Like Testa in LD1, Peters in particular has used the presence of the Democratic Party-connected General Majority PAC in the race (infused with $500,000 last week from the Carpenters Action Fund; $72.6K expended last week toward anti-GOP media in the 8th) to make an argument against district bossism, routinely deriding the “Camden Cartel’s” efforts to take over BurlCo.

Bramnick and Munoz
Incumbent Republicans Bramnick and Munoz.

The 21st District

Central Jersey Democrats galvanized in the Trump era continue to see real potential in the 21st. While

LD21 Democratic Assembly candidates Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman
LD21 Democratic Assembly candidates Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman

he insulated himself early with a series of high-paid, high-visibility ads, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) suffers longtime connective tissue to unpopular former Governor Chris Christie and the Christie brain trust. Democratic challengers Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman want to make him pay for the assemblyman’s double whammy of trying to exist politically in a realm dominated by Christie and now Trump. In a very close contest, the presence of movement conservatives Martin Marks and Harris Pappas have the GOP seething, and grimacing with real worry as the watch the candidacy of Bramnick’s running mate, incumbent Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-21). Union County Democratic Committee Chairman Nick Scutari recruited Mandelblatt and Gunderman and is going for a win that he hopes will help define his chairmanship amid ongoing fracture and home town political agony. Governor Phil Murphy has also personally expressed his interest in seeing the district flip, which would not be unsual but for the Democratic govenror’s remoteness from the South Jersey contest, ground zero of the political machine operated by rivals Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Powerbroker George Norcross III. This was the the most expensive district, as of earlier this month, driven in large part by Bramnick’s spending on himself. A late entry PAC with ties to Essex County called Monday Morning New Jersey, went to the aid of the Democrats.

LD25 candidates, from left: ucco, Bergen, Bhimani, Draeger.
LD25 candidates, from left: Bucco, Bergen, Bhimani, Draeger.

District 25

The September death of state Senator Tony Bucco (R-25) saddened many who knew him. Submitted to the hardest political analysis, his passing convinced insiders that his son, Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-25) would win reelection, perhaps by a greater margin, with Morris paying tribute to the late patriarch in the form of a semtimental vote for his son. But Bucco’s decision to secure his father’s senate seat while running for reelection to the assembly (instead of allowing a surrogate to occupy the seat until after election) drew widespread scorn. The move made Bucco, with days left until Nov. 5th. appear more, not less, vulnerable, at ground zero of the Morris County movement that turned U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) out of office and began the era of U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11). Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger have forced Bucco to undertake his most aggressive reelection effort to date, as he attempt sto fortify his position with war veteran Brian Bergen. But sources within both parties acknowledge the danger of Bucco’s move on already-competitive terrain. Like LD21, Governor Murphy sees opportunity here as he promised to campaign this final week “in the 20s”, meaning LD21 and LD25.

Somerset County Freeholder Pat Walsh.
Somerset County Freeholder Pat Walsh.

Somerset County

Republicans want to protect a 3-2 advantage on the freeholder board here, and are relying on veteran Freeholder Pat Walsh to stop the bleeding a year after Democrats won two seats (and in 2020, as long as Trump occupys the top of the GOP ticket, anticipate two more federal year wins). The Somerset GOP has put nearly everything on holding onto Walsh, who faces Melonie Marano, a fellow former mayor of Green Brook Twp. Their aggresssive attempt to insulate the incumbent against the saturation of national politics makes most sources see greater opportunity for retired Franklin Twp. Police Officer Darrin Russo, who’s running for sheriff against Republican North Plainfield Chief Bill Parenti. Sources expect Russo to win. Like the BurlCo GOP and the Hamilton Twp. GOP, Somerset Republican Chairman Al Gaburo faces rifts within his own party, specifically bitter fractures in the aftermath of the Bridgewater GOP Primary for Mayor, and fractures visible in the wake of the primary for sheriff (the Republican loser to Parrenti, Tim Pino, backed Russo) that threaten to put Walsh in harm’s way. Much like Stanfield in BurlCo, Walsh is running as a countywide institution, leaning on her record within the trembling Republican organization to provide her with a foundation to resist the turning tide of demographic-shifting Somerset. Democrats are convinced the anti-Trump mood makes it unlikley that Walsh can withstand the onslaught, and point to developments like U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7) over incumbent U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) as evidence. This countywide race impacts LD16, which should have been more competitive this year, given the implications of Democrat Murphy at mid-term in a suburban district. But incumbent Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman appear to have stymied their opponents, whose Republican Party is more focused on reelecting Walsh than leg-boosting GOP challengers Mark Caliguire and Christine Madrid. Another curiosity: Caliguire and Madrid are both from Montgomery, which is in Somerset, indicating more strategic design to spike numbers in the battleground county rather than distribute LD16 Republican activity and galvanize red county voters in the Hunterdon portion of 16.

The governor’s hopes for an obvious win hang on the shoulders of former Green Brook Mayor Melonie Marano.


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