Home>Campaigns>After barnburner 2021 contest, will LD8 be competitive this year?

Former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield and Assemblyman Ryan Peters campaigning in 2019. (Photo: Nikita Biryukov for the New Jersey Globe).

After barnburner 2021 contest, will LD8 be competitive this year?

Stanfield is retiring, but Republicans still retain clear edge

By Joey Fox, January 25 2023 12:01 am

In 2021, New Jersey’s 8th legislative district hosted a genuine showdown of giants: party-switching State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) versus Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), two of Burlington County’s most popular officeholders. The race was the most closely watched in the state, and with $8.5 million spent, it became the third-most expensive legislative race in New Jersey history.

Now, just over a year later, the 8th district isn’t the subject of nearly as much intrigue – even though Stanfield, who won the 2021 contest 51%-49%, is retiring. For a variety of reasons, most importantly redistricting and candidate recruitment, it seems unlikely that the district will host one of the top races in the state this year.

“This should be a district that should get some consideration,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “[But] I don’t know that it will be, because of other districts that are going to be higher priorities.”

Faced with daunting obstacles to victory, Democrats may relinquish their dreams of flipping the 8th district – at least for now.

Explaining the old 8th district

Based in southern Burlington County, the 8th district is one of many once-safely Republican districts across the state that became competitive after Donald Trump was elected president. Burlington County Republicans, long accustomed to winning even in blue-leaning territory, suddenly found themselves increasingly vulnerable on every level of government.

In 2017, the first legislative election of the Trump era, Addiego – still more than a year away from her eventual party switch – defeated an unheralded Democratic foe just 52%-48% in a race no one was paying close attention to. The result was a far cry from Addiego’s 63%-37% win in 2013, or her uncontested win in 2011 (after her would-be Democratic opponent fumbled his residency requirement).

That same year, Democrats flipped two seats on the board of freeholders, the beginning of a long run of victories that eventually led to complete Democratic control of county government. And one year later, Burlington Democrats finally put one of their own in Congress: Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), who was among the four New Jersey Democrats to flip a seat in the 2018 blue wave.

Yet although they succeeded on a county and federal level, the 8th legislative district remained out of reach. Democratic Assembly candidates came up short once again in 2019 after a hard-fought campaign, even after Addiego switched parties; then, Addiego herself was felled by Stanfield in the 2021 Republican wave.

Theoretically, the district should have been very winnable for Democrats, given that federal Democrats like Joe Biden routinely carried it by decent margins. But in off-year legislative elections, Democrats weren’t able to break through.

Introducing the new 8th district

During last year’s unexpectedly bipartisan legislative redistricting process, both Democrats and Republicans were able to get their way in different parts of the state. In the 8th district, it was Republicans who came out on top.

Gone is the old 8th district’s tendril into Camden County; in its place are new, Republican-leaning towns from Atlantic and Burlington Counties. The changes are relatively minor, especially compared with the reshaping of some other districts around the state, but they’re enough to put Republicans in an advantageous position.

The new district would have voted for Joe Biden by 4.6 points in 2020, down from 6.8 points on the old map. More relevantly, it would have voted for Jack Ciattarelli by 8.9 points in the 2021 gubernatorial election, up from 6.2 points on the old map.

Again, the shifts are not massive, and the core of the district remains the same – but in such a closely divided district, even small changes can be decisive.

In 2021, Addiego lost to Stanfield by 2.2 points. On the new map, however, four 2021 Democratic Senate candidates would have combined for a 5.7-point loss, an indication of how the district might have voted if it had existed. (Two of those candidates were penniless Democrats in strongly Republican districts, so it’s not a perfect measure.)

Six points isn’t a landslide, of course. But Republicans don’t need a landslide – they just need to scare Democrats away from trying to seriously compete.

Previewing this year’s 8th district race

And that, at its core, is the biggest reason why the 8th district might not be a top-tier race this year: Democrats may be too disheartened to make a real play for it.

Republicans have already landed a top-tier Senate candidate in Latham Tiver, a former Burlington County freeholder and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 official.

Tiver has proven his electoral mettle – though he lost re-election in 2019, he won the Burlington County towns in the 8th district and ran just 28 votes behind Stanfield’s victorious Assembly campaign – and his union background likely means he’ll have plenty of money to run a serious campaign. Republicans are losing a powerhouse in Stanfield, but Tiver makes her loss sting less keenly.

Democrats, meanwhile, have not settled on their slate. They have a wide array of local elected politicians to choose from, but as Rasmussen noted, there’s only a small number of Democratic candidates who could draw the kind of investment they’d need to win.

“There is a scenario in which … a candidate could attract the attention of the right Democrats and Democratic money,” Rasmussen said. “And if that played out, then you would see a more competitive race. But otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to see a competitive race.”

Rasmussen cited Andrea Katz, the Chesterfield Democratic municipal chairwoman, as one such candidate who has the kind of connections needed to make the 8th district a high-priority race.

Otherwise, though, it may be that 8th district Democrats are left out to dry by state Democrats who see other races as more worthy of time and investment. South Jersey alone has three other districts – the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th – that could host hotly contested races this year, redirecting attention away from the 8th district. 

“[Democrats] could decide, ‘We’re not going to spread ourselves too thin, we need to concentrate on Gloucester, LD4 is where to load up,’” Rasmussen said. “‘If we’re looking to make an expansion play, maybe we’re going to go into Atlantic and LD2.’ You can absolutely see where LD8 sort of falls by the wayside.”

And after winning every recent countywide election by healthy margins, Burlington Democrats likely won’t be as energized for county races this year, which might have knock-on effects in the 8th district.

“Because they won all those races and they have a cushion… it’s not like they’re going to be turning over every stone looking for every vote across the county,” Rasmussen said.

In theory, the math could be there for 8th district Democrats. Just last year, congressional Democrats collectively won the district by two points, an indication that the district can go blue even in years that aren’t especially favorable to the party.

But – upset victors like Ed Durr aside – candidates usually need some investment put behind them in order to win. It’s not clear the eventual Democratic nominees in the 8th district will get that this year. 2023 will surely host a number of hugely interesting legislative contests, but it looks like the 8th district may not be among them.

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