This November, New Jersey will have two special legislative elections in legislative district 25. Both elections were triggered when long-time Republican State Senator Anthony R. Bucco died of a heart attack last September.
Bucco had held the seat since ousting a Democratic incumbent in 1996, and had been re-elected by stable margins during most of his tenure. Following his death, his son, Anthony M. Bucco, was appointed to the State Senate seat to replace him.
Anthony M. Bucco had served in the State Assembly from the district since 2010, so when he resigned his assembly seat also opened up. Republicans elected Aura K. Dunn to fill the vacant seat in the Assembly pending a special election. This article will analyze the trends in LD-25, as well as the competitive races for both seats in the upcoming special elections.
The Morris County-based district, like many similar seats in North Jersey, is trending Democratic.
The Democratic trends in the 25th can be better understood by analyzing similar trends in Morris County, which accounts for all of the seat’s territory.
When the district was drawn in 2011, Morris County was still a reliably Republican region, but recently it has become more “purple”. This is especially evident when looking at the Republican decline in Morris County between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections. In 2012 it voted 54.9-44.1% for Mitt Romney, but in 2016 it voted for Trump by only a 49.7-45.5% margin. It is also important to note, as analyst Drew Savicki pointed out in his New Jersey article for 270towin.com, that Morris county voted 53.5%-46.5% for Democratic candidates for U.S. House in 2018. These data clearly show that Morris County still leans Republican, but that it is trending quickly toward the Democrats.
Trends in the seat itself are even more beneficial for Democrats than the trends in Morris county are.
In the 2012 presidential race, the 25th voted for Romney 53.7-45.3%, a margin nearly identical to that of Morris County. In 2016, however, the district defied Morris County by voting narrowly for Hillary Clinton by just 0.02%.
Even though Presidential trends help shed light on the general direction of the district’s political leanings, they do not show the full picture of the strength of moderate Republicans in New Jersey legislative races, which, although steadily decreasing, still plays an important role in New Jersey’s legislative elections. The map below shows the trends in the 25th district between presidential and legislative races:
Republicans have still managed to maintain slight dominance in legislative elections in the 25th/. In fact, Republicans defied 2018 trends by narrowly increasing their combined Assembly victory margin in the district from 4.6% in 2017 to 5.4% in 2019.
Bucco maintained a financial edge, avoided voters fully understanding the Assembly to Senate switch, and benefitted from a late surge of Republican base enthusiasm after House Democrats moved to impeach Trump just before the election.
The 2019 legislative elections saw a near complete reversal of the momentum for Democrats that was apparent in the 2018 congressional election that replaced two Republican congressmen representing the 25th, Rodney Frelinghuysen and Leonard Lance, with Democrats Mike Sherrill and Tom Malinowski.
Republicans held their Assembly seats in vulnerable North Jersey Clinton seats like the 21st and 25th districts, and managed to use their momentum in South Jersey to flip the 1st district on the Assembly level, as well as the Senate level. (Mike Testa defeated Bob Andrzejczak in Senate District 1 special election).
What makes 2020 different for Democrats here? Simple: the special elections in District 25 are occurring in a presidential election year.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton carried the 25th over Trump by a mere 18 votes. Since then, Democrats have bridged the GOP voter registration edge from about 16,000 more Republicans than Democrats to just 6,500.
In 2018, Sherrill and Malinowski won the 25th by a combined 9,479 votes.
If Joe Biden outperforms Clinton, Democrats might get a boost.
But while Trump’s polling numbers in New Jersey have been dismal, he’s doing substantially better in competitive congressional districts, like the ones held by Sherrill and Malinowski.
The Senate Special Election
When Anthony R. Bucco died of a massive heart attack on September 16, 2019, the deadline for voters to immediately pick a replacement for the State Senate seat he’s held since 1998 had passed six days earlier.
His son, Anthony M. Bucco, was their heir apparent for that seat and was unopposed when he ran in an October 1 special election convention to take the Senate seat.
The November special election will determine who serves the remaining fourteen months of the four-year term Bucco won by a narrow 52%-48% margin in 2017. It was the closest general election of Bucco’s five-decade political career.
Democrats have picked Rupande Mehta, an advocate for sexual abuse victims and gun control making her third bid for public office. She lost race for Denville council in 2017 and Morris County freeholder in 2018.
On March 15, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Mehta won the endorsement of the Morris County Democrats in an online convention by just two votes against former Morris Township Mayor Jeff Grayzel.
Mehta won 136 to 134, with attorney Cliff Dawkins finishing third with 71 votes.
Bucco is clearly better known than Mehta. He has won six races for the legislature, and his father has been on the ballot in every Morris County municipality in the 25th district eleven times since his first race for freeholder in 1989.
He now has the advantage of incumbency and it’s not really clear if voters even realize that a different Senator Bucco now represents them. Bucco doesn’t have to waste valuable campaign funds introducing himself to voters. Instead he can spend time campaigning throughout the district to ensure the voters know his record. This gives him a valuable head start over Mehta in name recognition and fundraising.
Mehta will likely need Biden to take the 25th by much wider margin than Clinton did four years ago to score an upset against Bucco. She also needs to win women voters by a huge margin.
The better Trump does in Western Morris County, the better Bucco’s prospects for holding his Senate seat will be. The Bucco name will also bring him some ticket-splitting Democrats – he and his father have over-performed other Republican candidates in Dover, a Hispanic-majority town – and Mehta will need to overcome that.
Mehta has a story to tell over the next 150 days as she introduces herself to voters: she emigrated to the United States from India in 2002 to attend graduate school and became a U.S. citizen in 2017 – the year she first sought public office.
Both parties seem to agree that Bucco starts the campaign as the favorite. He overcame a tough re-election bid last year and wound up doing better than he did in 2017, despite a significant amount of money being spent against him.
The Assembly Special Election
One of the two Assembly spots for the 25th opened up last fall when Bucco Republicans picked him to fill the Senate seat of his late father.
Instead of dropping out of the race, Bucco campaigned for re-election to the Assembly from his Senate seat, asking voters to re-elect him to an office he had no intention of accepting.
Brian Bergen won the second Assembly seat. The Denville councilman had won the GOP primary to replace Michael Patrick Carroll, who stepped down from the Assembly
Republicans held a special election convention where they voted to elect Aura Kenny Dunn to fill the vacant Assembly seat.
Dunn had run against Bergen in the 2019 primary, losing by 1,418 votes.
She won a special election convention in November to replace Bucco with 74% in a six-candidate field, and another special election to fill Bucco’s seat in the new legislature without opposition.
This will be the first competitive one-on-one special election for State Assembly since 2012, when Donna Simon, a Republican, edged out Democrat Marie Cornfeld in the 16th district by 976 votes.
The Democratic candidate for Assembly is Darcy Draeger, the 2019 nominee and the Chester Democratic municipal chair.
Many legislators can spend multiple terms in the legislature without ever achieving significant name identification with voters in their district. Dunn is running in her third consecutive cycle – she ran for Morris County freeholder in 2018 – but this will be her first general election. That means 67% of all voters have never seen Dunn’s name on a general election ballot, even though she’ been elected to the State Assembly twice.
Draeger had the benefit of running for State Assembly in an expensive, high-profile race last year. So, while she’s never won public office, most voters have at least seen her name on the ballot before.
After campaigning virtually not stop since 2018, Dunn faces no opposition in the Republican primary.
She made her first bid for public office two years ago after serving as Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s district director and as a Mendham Township Planning Board member. While still relatively new to local politics, Dunn has been around government for decades; she worked on the staff of U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, and was a lobbyist for Sesame Street.
Draeger faced no party opposition for the Assembly, avoiding the kind of fight Mehta had to secure the Morris organization line for Senate. She’s the Chester Democratic Municipal Chairman, and after giving up a career in finance, she’ a full-time sheep farmer and beekeeper.
Last year, Draeger finished 2,432 votes behind Bergen – a difference of 2.4 percentage points.
Like many elections, Dunn vs. Draeger might come down to where 25th district voters go in the Trump vs. Biden race – and how Sherrill and Malinowski perform in their bids for re-election to second terms in Congress.
Harrison W. Lavelle is a New Jersey Globe Summer Fellow for 2020.