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Assembly Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield), right, Assembly Republican Conference Leader Nancy Munoz (R-Summit), center, and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield).

8 Places to Watch for 2021 legislative candidate recruitment

By David Wildstein, December 31 2020 4:30 pm

Once the holiday season officially ends on Monday morning, potential candidates and political parties will come closer to making final decisions on their political futures.  County conventions and screening committees begin in February.

It will also be a moment for retirement watches as some legislators decide if they want to spend another two years in Trenton.   Keep an eye out for incumbents who lose party support for re-election and won’t be able to do anything about it.

The biggest deadline is February 15.  If the U.S. Census doesn’t certify new population data by then, the current map will hold for another two years.  If they do, there will be a shotgun redistricting session – and potentially a postponement of the June primary.  (The real deadline may be January 20, the day Donald Trump leaves office.  If it’s not done by then, watch for the current map to remain in effect.)

Here are Eight Places to Watch for the 2021 legislative races:

1. What will Tom Kean do? Kean came within one percentage point of winning a congressional seat in 2020 and must now decide if he wants a rematch with Rep. Tom Malinowski in 2022.

The conventional wisdom is that if Kean wants another shot at the House, he’ll need to forgo a bid for re-election to his State Senate seat in order to focus entirely on federal fundraising.

If that happens, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick would likely run for the open Senate seat.  It’s not clear if Democrats will try to block him; unless they can attract a top tier recruit, like Westfield Mayor Shelly Brindle, Cranford Mayor Patrick Giblin or Summit Mayor Nora Radest, they won’t be able to.

That would leave an open Assembly seat on the GOP side, with questions about whether Union County Republicans will feel obligated to honor at 2011 deal with Somerset County.  When the current map was approved that year, it moved Assemblywoman Denise Coyle’s hometown of Bernards from the 16th into the 21st – that’s how a seat opened up for Jack Ciattarelli to go to the legislature — putting her in the same district as Bramnick and Nancy Munoz.  Coyle didn’t seek re-election, but the promise was made that Somerset would get the next open Assembly seat.

Kean could also trigger two competitive party leaderships contests: one to replace him as Senate Republican Leader after his term expires in January 2022, and another for Assembly Republican Leader to replace Bramnick.

2. Who will run against Republican-turned-Democrat State Sen. Dawn Addiego in the 8th legislative district?  Republicans have not yet figured out if their candidate will be Assemblyman Ryan Peters, Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield, or Hammonton Councilman Michael Torrissi – or someone else, like ex-Freeholder Latham Tiver. This is one of the most politically competitive districts in the state, and one of three that has a senator from one party and two Assembly members from the other.

Democrats need to come up with Assembly candidates, and Republicans might need to recruit a new candidate for the Assembly.

3. Can Democrats find a quality challenger in the 2nd district against Republican State Sen. Christopher Brown? Brown flipped the Senate seat in 2017 and Democrats want it back, b but their strongest candidate, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, seems increasingly less likely to want it.  Democrats are on the hunt for a one of those perfect-resume outsiders that brought them considerable success in flipping districts in the past.

There is no district in the state where Republicans have a better chance of picking up Assembly seats.  They came within 986 votes of ousting John Armato in 2019, and both seats might be in play.

4. Is Kip Bateman running? The longtime Republican state senator from the 16th district is headed into the toughest political battle of what has been a lifetime in Somerset County GOP politics.  He’ll face one of the two Democratic assemblymen who have flipped seats in the once-solid GOP district: Andrew Zwicker or Roy Freiman.

Bateman has insisted he will run for a fifth term, and he might get a boost if former 16th district Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli snags the Republican gubernatorial nomination.  But Bateman might not want to be the first Bateman to lose a general election since his father won an Assembly seat in 1958.

Some pundits think that Zwicker got in the race early with the hope of pushing Bateman into retirement.

Republicans will still need to recruit two Assembly candidates – perhaps not Mark Caliguire again – and Democrats are just about to begin a regional skirmish for an open Assembly seat.

5. Will Democrats contest the 1st district?  The upset of 2019 was Republican pickups of a State Senate seat and two Assembly seats in the Cape May/Cumberland-based legislative district, where Michael Testa ousted interim incumbent Bob Andrzejczak, and Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan defeated two Democratic assemblymen.  Jeff Van Drew represented the 1st for 17 years as a Democrat, and while Van Drew is now a Republican, the Van Drew Team that dominated legislative races no longer exists.  It will be largely up to Senate President Steve Sweeney to decide if he wants a fight with Testa.

6. How bad will things get in Ocean County? 

Two factions of Republicans in Ocean County are not getting along, and that could lead to gubernatorial candidates Jack Ciattarelli and Doug Steinhardt running their own lines, triggering legislative primaries in at least the 10th district, and possibly the 9th, 12th and 30th as well.

7. Will Democrats give up on the 25th and 39th?  Expensive efforts to flip Republican legislative districts in 2017 and 2019 – and in 2020 in the 25th — failed.  Democrats will offer a hint as to their intentions when they recruit candidates to run against State Sens. Anthony Bucco and Gerald Cardinale and against four GOP Assembly incumbents.

8.  Will Democratic primaries be real?  Gov. Phil Murphy has not said whether he will run on organization lines when he seeks re-election next year; Spoiler Alert: he will.  That could leave progressive off-the-line challenges facing a party ticket headed by a governor they strongly support – something that could result in disappointments, but no significant challenges.

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