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Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, left, and former Rep. Michael Pappas. (Image: NJ Globe).

16th district Republicans fight to stanch the bleeding

Zwicker vs. Pappas matchup tilts towards Democrats

By Joey Fox, October 27 2021 12:01 am

Republicans in the 16th legislative district have not had a good decade.

The first blow came in 2011, when the state went through its post-Census redistricting cycle. The 16th district had long been a Somerset County-based district, and thus had long been a Republican district; between World War II and Barack Obama’s first election, the county had voted for a Democrat for president exactly once, in 1964.

As other districts in North and Central Jersey shifted during the 2011 redistricting process, however, Democratic mapmakers saw an opportunity to give their party an opening in the district. And so, when the map was finalized, gone from the 16th district were solidly Republican Bedminster and Bridgewater, and newly added were deep blue Princeton and South Brunswick.

Even running in a now-Democratic leaning district, the 16th district’s trio of Republican legislators – State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg), Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough), and, following a 2012 special election, Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Readington) – were no pushovers, holding the seat for another four years after its lines were redrawn. 

But in 2015, Simon became the first to fall. Running in an off-year against Princeton University physicist Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), Simon lost by a miniscule 78 votes out of more than 65,000 cast.

Ciattarelli embarked on his first run for governor two years later, and the seat he left behind was snatched by Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough), who snuffed out a comeback attempt by Simon with relative ease. Even more shockingly, Bateman only won his race 50.4-49.6% against Democrat Laurie Poppe in a race that Republicans insisted wouldn’t be close.

The writing on the wall only grew clearer after 2017. Zwicker and Freiman were both re-elected with their largest margins yet in 2019; campaigning against a president toxically unpopular in many suburbs, Joe Biden won the district by a staggering 22 points in 2020; and finally, last January, Bateman announced his retirement after nearly 30 years in the legislature.

Now, this year, Democrats have a clear opportunity to capture every seat in the district. Zwicker is running to succeed Bateman, and joining his ticket are Freiman and former Montgomery Township Mayor Sadaf Jaffer. 

The Republican slate opposing them is former U.S. Rep. and current Bridgewater Township Administrator Michael Pappas (R-Branchburg), who’s making a comeback attempt for the Senate, Manville Borough Councilman Joe Lukac, and Hunterdon Central Regional Board of Education President Vinny Panico.

Most factors in the race point towards Democrats. Zwicker, Freiman, and Jaffer have outraised their opponents, and have the district’s long leftward slide on their side. Zwicker and Freiman also have the benefit of being incumbents, something Republicans long relied on in the district.

But Republicans are still putting up a strong fight to retain the Senate seat and potentially flip one or both Assembly seats, and insist that they can’t be counted out. 

The previous decade – of unfavorable redistricting, of ill-timed retirements, of collapsing numbers in the suburbs – is now behind Republicans. Can the next one be any better?

The Republican case

Dan Scharfenberger, the executive director of the Senate Republican Majority Campaign Committee, doesn’t buy the Democratic hype in the 16th district.

“I think it’s a dead, down-the-middle toss-up,” he said. “This is not a partisan district. It’s just not.”

Scharfenberger does have several points in his favor. For one, the lone publicly released poll of the race – a Republican internal poll from July – found Zwicker and Pappas tied at 44% apiece. Notably, the poll also found Gov. Phil Murphy leading Ciattarelli 44-43% in a district he won by six points in 2017. 

For another, Democrats may have achieved five election victories in recent years, but Republicans can point to a far longer history for their party in the district, with voters repeatedly choosing to re-elect moderate Republican legislators no matter what else may have been happening on the ticket.

“Partisan registration has moved one way or another over the past two decades, but what’s important to realize is that this is a middle-of-the-road, highly educated, get-the-job-done kind of district that doesn’t want the kind of partisanship that they’ve seen out of Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman,” Scharfenberger said. “The candidate who will win this race is the one who’s more like Kip Bateman.”

Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, agreed that the Bateman name and brand holds outsized sway in the district. Kip Bateman has served in the legislature since 1994 and his father, former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Raymond Bateman, was first elected all the way back in 1958.

“For the better part of 50 years, the Bateman name stayed out there, and didn’t really go away,” Rasmussen said. “And you are more likely to fall back on a name that you have been continually going back to the voting booth and seeing and hearing about.”

Still, Bateman doesn’t have a complete stranglehold on the district. When he won in 2017, he lost the two of the district’s three largest municipalities, Princeton and South Brunswick – but cleaned up nearly everywhere else, including in Hillsborough, the largest township in the district.

Even in 2013, when he was winning by more than 20 points, Bateman still lost the pair of South Brunswick and Princeton. What’s critical to a Republican victory is a clean sweep in the remainder of the district to overcome the inevitable Democratic advantage in their two municipalities.

Ciattarelli himself, returning to the electoral fray after four years, could also be a factor in the race this year. Much like Republicans had hoped former State Sen. and lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Diane Allen would provide a boost to legislative candidates in South Jersey, Scharfenberger anticipates a ticket led by Ciattarelli will be a boon in the 16th district.

“It is a tough district, but Jack Ciattarelli, every single race that he’s run – from the Raritan Borough Council to the Somerset Board of Chosen Freeholders, serving in the General Assembly for the 16th district – Democrats outnumber Republicans every single time, and Jack Ciattarelli won,” Scharfenberger said. “That’s the kind of running mate that we’re proud to run with.”

The Democratic case

Democrats don’t deny that the 16th district isn’t a solid Democratic district yet, and know they can’t take a victory for granted. But especially compared with other highly competitive districts across the state, the party is confident that it’s leaning in their favor.

“I’d be very surprised if we were talking about this as one of the closest races in New Jersey at the end of the election,” said Michael Muller, the executive director of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee.

The biggest thing working in Democrats’ favor is simple partisan math. There are now 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district, and Joe Biden’s 22-point victory in 2020 meant that it voted six points to the left of New Jersey overall. 

South Brunswick and Princeton remain the Democratic heart of the district just as before, but Republicans can no longer count on countervailing margins from the district’s other towns. Hillsborough, for example, went for Bateman by 10 points in 2017 but for Biden by 15 in 2020. An even more extreme example is Somerville, which moved from Bateman +3 to Biden +33.

“Party registration is destiny, so when you look at a 12-point advantage for Democrats, that becomes a big part of the puzzle,” Rasmussen said. “That hasn’t always been the case, but it’s the case right now at this point in our polarized electorate.”

Therein lies the greatest challenge for any Republican hoping to win districtwide: there simply isn’t much of a solidly Republican base left to draw on, whereas Democrats still have large vote margins that will come from South Brunswick and Princeton no matter what.

“It has only gotten worse [for Republicans] as the decade has gone on,” Rasmussen added. “The decade has not been kind to that map.”

Scharfenberger contends that popular local Republicans have made the math work before, but Muller makes the equally compelling argument that it’s now Democrats, not Republicans, who can claim to be the district’s locally beloved standard-bearers.

“[Zwicker] was perfectly tailor-made to be the next state senator for the district,” he said. “We’ve run a really strong campaign, we’ve got three great candidates that fit the district well. They have very different stories and profiles and strengths, but you couldn’t ask for anything better to head down the stretch.”

Muller added that while national and statewide Democrats have done well in the 16th district, such victories wouldn’t have been possible without the steady rise of local candidates like Zwicker, Freiman, and Jaffer.

“This district may finally flip entirely blue, but this has been a stable growth over the course of these years,” Muller said. “It’s not possible unless you run the right candidates and run campaigns to back it up. I’m proud of the three candidates and the races they’ve run and are continuing to run – they’re not just burgeoning because the district is.”

The state of the race

Republicans may yet hold onto the 16th district; after all, they’ve done it before. But they’re facing a series of obstacles that could prove insurmountable.

The first is, once again, the partisan geography of the district. The registration statistics and recent Democratic victories create a difficult path for Republicans from the outset; they simply have a lot of ground to make up and votes to win over.

In order to offset that partisan math and make the 16th district a true toss-up race, Republicans would likely need a clear incumbency advantage. Instead, with two sitting assemblymen and a mayor as their slate, it’s Democrats who have poached that advantage.

And, like many other districts around the state, Democrats also have the clear fundraising lead

As of campaign finance reports released two weeks ago, the three Democrats had collectively raised $1,565,130, while Republicans only raised $253,128. The fundraising disparity only accentuates one of Republicans’ key problems, that their Democratic opponents likely have significantly higher name recognition in the district.

“You expect someone [like Pappas] who has fundraising experience, and who’s taking a race seriously, to be adequately financed,” Rasmussen said. “And I think the rest of everything flows from that.”

In order for Republicans to pull off the upset next Tuesday, Rasmussen did propose a possible formula: “Pull off a relatively uninterested electorate, and drive those Republicans out to vote. And that is an outside shot.”

“But in order for that to work, that means the Democrats have to sit on their hands,” he added. “And that’s not going to happen.”

It’s taken Democrats 10 years to take full advantage of the redrawn 16th district, and this year’s redistricting means they could have to recalibrate once again. The next decade’s 16th district could be largely unchanged, or it could get far more Republican or Democratic.

But this year, it’s hard to argue that Democrats aren’t favored in the district’s three seats. The party has been building steadily for a decade – and now is finally the chance to strike.

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