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Analysis of Yesterday's Primary Election Results
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By ANJRPC Lobbyist Rob Nixon

State House Strategies


The field is now set for the November General Election for Governor and the Legislature following a primary election that saw more yawns than surprises from voters.  In the end there appear to be two practical takeaways from this election. First, voters were not overly excited to come out to the polls despite a number of alternatives put forward from party leaders for Governor and in some legislative districts.  Voter turnout in the June primary was a disappointing 14% despite the millions spent in advertising and the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts of both parties.  And while it appears that an increased number of Democrats voted than Republicans compared to the 2009 Primary election, the overall totals demonstrate a disinterested populace and party base as New Jersey prepares to select a new Governor.

Second, even without a massive turnout of party loyalists this election proves once again how important it is for a candidate to receive “the Line” in a primary election.  Specifically, a candidate who receives the designation as the official GOP or Democratic candidate on the ballot in a primary race gets bracketed under the County political party line on the ballot.  With that comes identification as the formal party candidate as well as organizational support in money and manpower.  Without question that factor favored Republican and Democratic candidates throughout NJ this year once again.

Murphy and Guadagno for Governor

The race for Governor has come down to what most analysts expected – Republican Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno versus Democratic businessman and former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, whose candidate website touts an openly anti-gun agenda. 

Lt. Governor Guadagno was the favorite to succeed Governor Christie when the election season began but she faced a surprisingly aggressive and well organized challenge from Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.  However, Ciattarelli could not overcome the party support Guadagno received from County GOP organizations around the State, especially in Ocean and Monmouth Counties, and her name recognition and role as an active Lt. Governor for 8 years brought her a clear win in the GOP primary.  Guadagno took nearly half of the total election results in a field of 5 Republican challengers.

A Former Goldman Sachs executive and Ambassador to Germany under President Obama, Phil Murphy more than easily beat back his rivals for the Democratic nomination by more than 130,000 votes.  Murphy’s win as a first time political candidate in NJ likely can be attributed to two major factors.  First, he used his vast fortune to build his name identification and to support Democratic causes to build a base for himself.  Second, he spent a considerable amount of time behind the scenes working to introduce himself to party leaders across the State.  In doing so he knocked off the initial Democratic front runner, Senate President Steve Sweeney, early in the process by securing critically important county party organizational support for the primary.

If there is a surprise from the primary race for Governor it is the strong second place showing by Democrat Jim Johnson.  Johnson, a former senior official in the United States Treasury and an experienced Harvard attorney, came out of nowhere by building support among issue oriented voters and rank and file Democrats.  His quiet but effective efforts led him ahead of experienced Democratic candidates like Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senator Ray Lesniak who finished third and fourth in the field of 6 Democrats respectively.  In doing so, Johnson has shot to the top of the Democratic bench of potential future candidates.

The race between Murphy and Guadagno will center on themes regarding the economy and property taxes.  Murphy is running a campaign critical of the State’s slow economic growth and his professional experience to help the State “grow itself out” of problems.  Guadagno is expected to focus on her experience as the State’s business advocate as Lt. Governor and her plan to lower property taxes. 

Both candidates have challenges to overcome.  Murphy will be attacked as the second Jon Corzine – a Goldman Sachs millionaire, out of touch and too much in the pockets of special interests groups.  Guadagno will have a hard time escaping the shadow of Governor Christie who leaves office very unpopular and many serious problems unresolved by his Administration.

LG Choice

The next significant choice the two candidates will make will be about a running mate.  Once the GOP and Democratic candidates win the primary, the State Constitution gives them the power to pick a running mate.  As of this writing, neither candidate has discussed their favorites or made any decisions.  But the choice is likely to come down to a few factors.  First, since both candidates are from Monmouth County in central NJ, it is likely the pick will have regional balance as a consideration.  Second, it is expected that there could be a woman and/or minority candidate selected by one or both candidates, but especially for Murphy.  Finally, the pick could also fill a need for the candidates as Governor.  Either candidate could choose a legislator to address their lack of Trenton legislative experience for example.  In any case, the selection of a Lieutenant Governor candidate will give some indication of what kind of direction the party nominees will be taking their campaign and their Administrations.

Legislative Incumbents and Party favorites safe

The 2017 Legislative Primary election saw only a few dogfights for Senate and Assembly but in each of the hot races incumbent candidates and party favorites were victorious.

In the 12th District, GOP Senator Sam Thompson and his running mates Assemblyman Ron Dancer and Assemblyman Rob Clifton held back an inter party fight that stemmed more from local and personal issues than any major philosophical differences.

Republican Senator Steve Oroho easily survived a challenge in the 25th Legislative District after his leadership on funding the Transportation Trust Fund through an increased Gas Tax.

Another gas tax fight erupted in the 26th District in Morris County as incumbent GOP Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce was assailed for her vote for the tax by her running mate Assemblyman Jay Webber and Morris County Freeholder Hank Lyon.  In the end, DeCroce and Webber, running as incumbents but not with each other, both prevailed.

The 40th Legislative District was the sight of a heated primary race to replace retiring GOP Senator Kevin O’Toole.  A battle on personal, philosophical and county lines, Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado defeated former GOP Assemblyman and current Bergen County GOP leader Paul DiGaetano and retired police officer Ed Buttimore.  On the Assembly side of the District, Corrado’s running mates Assemblyman Kevin Rooney and Chris DePhillips cruised to victory over DiGaetano’s slate in the safe north Jersey Republican District.

The primary battles weren’t all on the GOP side of the ledger as Democrats faced primaries in a combined 14 Senate and Assembly races.  However, none of those races were ever in doubt.

November’s Competitive Districts

While there was competition in the primary races for Senate and Assembly, the number of seats in play in November will focus on just a few legislative districts.  Going into this election, the Senate and Assembly will have at least 11 new faces due to retirements or Assembly members moving up to the Senate.

The races to watch in November center on:

 District 2

Current GOP Assemblyman Chris Brown is looking to reclaim the Atlantic County based State Senate seat from retiring Senator Jim Whelan.  The race will likely be one of the most expensive and competitive in New Jersey.  With that will come a race to succeed Brown in the Assembly while Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo will look to pull his running mate across the finish line in one of the few split Districts in New Jersey.

 District 11

Both parties have set their sights on the Monmouth County centered 11th District.  Democrats are desperate to take out GOP Senator Jennifer Beck.  Republicans, still stinging over losing two GOP Assemblywoman in 2015, will be focused heavily on defeating Democratic Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling and Assemblywoman Joann Downey.  There may not be a more expensive or heated race in all of New Jersey this election than in the 11th.

 District 16

The once reliably Republican 16th District was dramatically altered by redistricting which led to the loss of GOP Assemblywoman Donna Simon in 2015.  The pressure builds for the GOP again in the District as incumbent Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli will not be on the ballot due to his run for Governor in the primary.  The Democrats will aggressively work to defend freshman Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and hope to take the open seat.  Leading the GOP ticket is popular Senator Kip Bateman and Republican leaders are hopeful his record in the District will have coattails in the Assembly.

 District 38

Considered a swing district despite that it has been held by Democrats for more than a decade, the Bergen County based 38th District will once again be a priority for both parties.  Democratic margin of victory in the District has been as low as 25 votes in 2013 but Senator Bob Gordon and Assemblymen Joe Lagana and Tim Eustace have been furiously building their defenses since then.  

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