Home>Campaigns>An early look at the 2023 legislative playing field

Senator Fred Madden at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

An early look at the 2023 legislative playing field

Lots of potentially competitive races, with particular focus on Central and South Jersey

By Joey Fox, February 07 2023 12:01 pm

Incumbents are retiring. Challengers are emerging. County conventions are approaching.

The 2023 legislative elections are upon us.

Of course, voters won’t go to the general election polls for another nine months, but that doesn’t mean parties and candidates aren’t fully engaged in formulating their strategies for winning districts up and down the state. So, while the election cycle is still in its early stages, it’s worth taking a look at where the legislative playing field stands. 

Depending on the political environment, this year’s election could theoretically give Republicans a legislative majority for the first time in decades – or alternately wipe away all the progress they’ve made in recent years.

There are a few districts on the state’s redrawn legislative map that both parties are already anticipating will become expensive, hotly contested races. Then there are the districts that could become competitive under the right circumstances: if the political environment tilts clearly in favor of one party, and if that party has strong candidates who are able to take advantage of it.

“If the Democrats want to play everywhere – if they tap into a fountain of interested candidates from around the state – then they can play in all of these places,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “And Republicans have had a lot of enthusiastic candidates over the years; if they wanted to play in all these places, could they? The answer is yes. It could happen.”

It’s not even clear who the candidates will be in most of these districts, so this isn’t meant as an iron-clad forecast of what will happen this November. Instead, it’s a guide to what the possibilities are in an election year that’s still a ways away from fully taking shape.

The top tier

Every election year, there are a few districts that emerge as the definitive races of the cycle, drawing the vast majority of attention and fundraising. In 2021, just five legislative districts drew more than half of all legislative campaign spending, showing how concentrated the legislative playing field can get.

It’s too early to know exactly what those districts will be this year, but there are four districts that Democrats and Republicans alike recognize as likely options: the 11th, 4th, 2nd, and 16th. 

Incumbents: Vin Gopal (D) | Marilyn Piperno (R), Kim Eulner (R)
Statewide results: Biden +13, Ciattarelli +2

The 11th district, covering the bluest parts of Monmouth County, is the one district that is essentially guaranteed to host an expensive, competitive race no matter what. That’s because it’s the only district in the state to have a split delegation, with Democratic State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) serving alongside two Republican assemblywomen – meaning that both parties have incumbents they’re tasked with protecting.

“District 11 is a quintessential swing district and bellwether on every level,” Democratic strategist Michael Muller said. “There’s a reason why it’s the district that everyone would circle as number one on their target list.”

After redrawing what was then a Republican-leaning seat in their favor in 2011, Democrats flipped the 11th district’s two Assembly seats in 2015, then won its Senate seat in 2017. But in 2021, now-Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno (R-Colts Neck) and Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury) eked out huge upsets while Gopal was held to a four-point re-election victory.

That should give Republicans cause for optimism this year. After all, they just flipped two seats after spending essentially no money; now that the 11th district has their full attention, maybe they can achieve a complete sweep.

But Gopal is a formidable incumbent with a huge fundraising advantage, and Republicans’ top prospects declined to run against him; the GOP appears to have landed on former public relations executive Steve Dnistrian instead. Democrats, meanwhile, are running two strong Assembly candidates against Piperno and Eulner: Ocean Township Deputy Mayor Margie Donlon and former Municipal Court Judge Luanne Peterpaul.

“Vin has put up a good, very powerful front,” Rasmussen said. “He’s scaring off some of the top-tier contenders that you would want to see run if you were to give it the highest rating.”

And to add one more problem to the pile for Republicans, the district was made slightly more Democratic in redistricting, by around one percentage point. That may not sound like a lot, but had the new lines been in place in 2021, Piperno and Eulner may have fallen short

Incumbents: Fred Madden (D) | Paul Moriarty (D), Gabriela Mosquera (D)
Statewide results: Biden +7, Ciattarelli +5

New Jersey’s unprecedently bipartisan legislative redistricting process didn’t just benefit Democrats, however. In some other districts – chief among them the 4th district in South Jersey – Republicans are in a much better position than they were on the old map.

The old 4th district wasn’t really on Republicans’ radars, and even as Gov. Phil Murphy collapsed across South Jersey, he still won the district by two points. That changes dramatically on the new map, which turns the 4th district into a seat Jack Ciattarelli won by five points – an alarming prospect for a slate of Democratic incumbents who haven’t had to run a competitive race in ages.

“LD4 is going to be one of the hottest races, for sure,” Rasmussen said. “Republicans are loaded for bear, and smell blood.”

The district’s Democratic standard-bearer, deeply moderate State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Washington), has been the subject of retirement rumors several cycles in a row now, and this cycle is no different, especially given his mediocre fundraising. The race will probably remain in limbo until it’s clear what Madden and his running mates, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Washington) and Assemblywoman Gabrial Mosquera (D-Gloucester), plan to do.

“I, like many people, have heard a lot of rumblings of potential retirements there, because that’s how scared Democrats are of the fight that lies ahead of them in this district,” New Jersey GOP executive director Tom Szymanski said. “I think this will be one of, if not the most, competitive districts in the state in 2023.”

Republicans’ slate is also still unclear, with just one Assembly candidate, Michael Clark, officially in the race so far.

No matter who runs on either side, the 4th district race is sure to be an intense and costly one. That’s probably to the benefit of Democrats, who have more money to spend and a more robust organization in Camden and Gloucester Counties – though as the 2021 elections showed, even poorly funded Republicans can make magic happen in South Jersey.

Incumbents: Vince Polistina (R) | Claire Swift (R), Don Guardian (R)
Statewide results: Biden +12, Ciattarelli +7

No district in New Jersey embodies the swing district ethos more than the 2nd, an Atlantic County-based seat that has been allergic to consistently favoring one party over the other. From 2005 until 2021, the district never elected three legislators from the same party at once, an oddity that Muller attributed to the district’s “wildly parochial” attitude towards politics.

“The voters in the 2nd district, and in Atlantic County more generally – they’re ticket-splitters by nature,” he said. “These are voters that are very comfortable ticket splitting, and really view things through the prism of each individual candidate.”

In 2021, Republicans found the winning formula and elected State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor), Assemblywoman Claire Swift (R-Margate), and Assemblyman Don Guardian (R-Atlantic City), finally breaking the district’s ticket-splitting streak. They were helped by Ciattarelli’s astonishingly good performance in Atlantic County; Ciattarelli carried the new 2nd district (which is slightly more Democratic than its previous version) by seven points, a 18-point rightward swing compared to the 2020 presidential election.

Since their initial win, Polistina and his running mates have become some of Trenton’s most bipartisan legislators. Most notably, they were the only three Republicans to vote for the 2023 budget, which was vociferously opposed by most of their colleagues.

Atlantic Democrats haven’t yet announced their slate, but they’re likely to field strong candidates and give them the funds they need to compete. That means this year probably won’t break the 2nd district’s history of competitive races, but the burden of proof is on Democrats to show that they can flip Atlantic County back.

Incumbents: Andrew Zwicker (D) | Roy Freiman (D), Sadaf Jaffer (D, retiring)
Statewide results: Biden +21, Murphy +5

Finally, there’s the 16th legislative district, where Republicans want to claw back three seats that they’ve steadily lost over the past decade.

That’s a difficult task, for a number of reasons. For one, the district is quite Democratic – more so than any district Republicans currently hold – despite getting slightly redder in redistricting. For another, Republicans will have to face State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), who in 2021 was the only Democrat to flip a legislative seat red-to-blue.

Faced with such daunting challenges, Republicans aren’t overly optimistic about their chances this year. Nevertheless, both parties are approaching the district as a high priority, and no one expects the final result to be a landslide.

“It’s a district that is very much a coin-flip district,” Muller said. “It’s a place that’s clearly going to be high on Republicans’ target list.”

Unlike elsewhere in the state, Republicans already have a strong slate of challengers raring to go. Former U.S. Rep. Michael Pappas (R-Branchburg), who lost by six points to Zwicker in 2021, is running again; for the Assembly, Clinton Town Councilman Ross Traphagen has announced his campaign, and Montgomery GOP chairwoman Rosy Thakkar is considered a probable candidate as well.

There will also be an open seat this year, with Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery) retiring after just one term. Democrats have likely found a solid candidate to run alongside Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) – Mitchelle Drulis, until recently the district director for former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) – but in a close race the lack of an incumbent could be pivotal.

Republican opportunities

If Republicans were to run the table on Districts 2, 4, 11, and 16 – already a difficult task – that would still leave them two districts short of a majority. 

In order to force Democrats into the minority, or at least into a tied chamber, they’d need to expand even further into Democratic-leaning territory, flipping seats that haven’t voted for a Republican at any level in years. And the two most realistic options, according to both Republicans and Democrats, are the 38th and 14th districts.

Incumbents: Joe Lagana (D) | Lisa Swain (D), Chris Tully (D)
Statewide results: Biden +14, Murphy +5

Based in the heart of Bergen County, the 38th legislative district has hosted a number of competitive races over the years, including an unexpectedly close 2021 Senate race that saw State Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Paramus) win re-election by less than six points. With recent local wins in towns like Paramus and Maywood, Republicans are hopeful that they could break through for the first time since 2001.

“This is where I grew up,” said Szymanski, who was raised in Rutherford, just to the south of the modern 38th district. “The Republican Party, in the better part of the last decade, has gravitated more and more towards championing issues of the working-class and middle-class, and I think that this is a district that is poised to be a prime battleground.”

The problem, though, is that they haven’t gotten past the first step: figuring out who’s going to run at all. The filing deadline for the Bergen GOP convention came and went last week with no Senate candidates emerging, though there are two candidates – Glen Rock businessman Barry Wilkes and crisis intervention counselor Gail Horton – running for the Assembly against Assemblymembers Lisa Swain (D-Fair Lawn) and Chris Tully (D-Bergenfield).

In a district that voted for both Biden and Murphy and that has three well-funded Democratic incumbents, Republicans will need to find a compelling challenger soon, or else it’s easy to see how the 38th district slips off the playing field.

“Recruitment does drive competitiveness,” Rasmussen said. “The perception of competitiveness drives recruitment, and then recruitment drives competitiveness.”

Incumbents: Linda Greenstein (D) | Wayne DeAngelo (D), Dan Benson (D, retiring)
Statewide results: Biden +18, Murphy +9

Further of a stretch for Republicans is the 14th district, which is based in light-blue Hamilton Township and covers a number of other Central Jersey suburbs. The refrain at this point should be familiar: a Democratic-leaning district with strong incumbents that Republicans think could flip under the right circumstances.

One factor working in Republicans’ favor is that there will be an open seat this year, with Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) running instead for Mercer County Executive. It’s not yet clear who will join the ticket with State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton), but whoever emerges likely won’t have the built-up warchest and connections Benson had.

Without much of a local base to draw on, Republicans are putting forward 2021 15th district Assembly nominee Pat Johnson for the Senate; the GOP Assembly slate is still taking shape.

The challenge for Republicans in the 14th district, and elsewhere, is that they’d need a perfect storm – good political environment, top-tier candidates, Democratic fumbles – to win, and so far they’re not getting one.

“You could see something happen in LD14,” Rasmussen said. “You’d need to get a whole ticket going, not just one open seat, and you’d need to be able to mount somebody against Linda. All those things have to happen. Which doesn’t mean they can’t happen, it just seems like the odds are against them at this moment.”

And more?

There are a couple of other districts that are, on paper, about as competitive as the ones Republicans are seriously interested in targeting. The 19th and 36th districts voted for Murphy by seven and eight points in 2021, respectively, so they’re not totally out of reach for Republicans, who want to devote some time and money to expanding the playing field as far as possible.

“Nobody is safe,” Szymanski said. “Nobody is absolved of being held accountable by their voters, no matter how left-leaning a district may be perceived.”

But Democrats don’t see either of those districts, or any of the other 16 Democratic-held districts around the state, as realistic possibilities for 2023. And without a concerted effort from the GOP, there’s no way powerful incumbents like Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) or Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) go down.

Democratic opportunities

Given the shellacking Democrats experienced in 2021, it’s long been the assumption that the party will have to play defense this year. But after the party’s unexpectedly solid showing in the 2022 midterms, and with Murphy’s approval ratings settling into solidly positive territory, there’s no guarantee that 2023 will be a red wave year once again.

If the political environment turns in Democrats’ favor, there’s a whole host of districts that could come into play; Republicans hold seats in no fewer than seven Biden-won districts, six of which also voted for Democratic congressional candidates last year. Although not all of those districts will host competitive races this year, it certainly gives Democrats some serious upside potential.

Incumbents: Ed Durr (R) | Beth Sawyer (R), Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R)
Statewide results: Trump +3, Ciattarelli +16

It may be that, this fall, the Gloucster and Salem County-based 3rd district will host one of the most expensive and closely watched legislative contests in New Jersey history. Whether or not that comes to pass depends on two men: former Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.

By now, the story of the 2021 3rd district campaign has been thoroughly entered into political legend. An unknown and unfunded truck driver named Ed Durr takes on the most powerful member of the New Jersey Legislature and wins, sweeping out the sitting Senate President and both of his running mates.

This year, Democrats want LD3 back, but in order to have any chance, they’ll have to run a top-notch campaign in the Trump-won district (the only such district on this entire list). If Sweeney passes on a campaign and Norcross focuses his money elsewhere, that probably takes the district off the board.

“Somebody’s got to make the decision that it’s a major investment, and I don’t see them making that decision at this moment,” Rasmussen said.

Still, Republicans are providing Democrats with an opening with their own internecine squabbling. Durr faces a potential primary challenge from Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum; if that challenge comes to pass, Assemblywoman Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R-Mannington) would likely stick with Durr, while Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich) would run with Ostrum.

Should that primary fight get truly nasty, Norcross may decide the 3rd district is worth investing in after all, especially since none of the Republican incumbents have very much money saved up. A fully engaged South Jersey Democratic machine would easily vault the 3rd district into the top tier of races – it’s just not clear yet whether that will happen.

Incumbents: Jean Stanfield (R, retiring) | Michael Torrissi (R), Brandon Umba (R)
Statewide results: Biden +5, Ciattarelli +9

Burlington County’s 8th district hosted what was probably the single most competitive legislative race in 2021, between party-switching State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) and then-Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), a contest Stanfield won 51%-49%.

No one seems to think this year’s 8th district race will be quite so intense, even with Stanfield retiring after just one term. In a redder redrawn district and with other worries to focus on elsewhere, Democrats don’t have much hope that this will be the year they finally flip the 8th, which has never actually elected a Democratic legislator.

Republicans have already recruited an A-list Senate candidate in former Freeholder Latham Tiver, whose history as business representative for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 gives him built-in labor support. Democrats, on the other hand, don’t have any obvious candidates, outside of their quixotic bid to recruit former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski.

But Muller noted that Burlington County has been a Democratic hotspot in recent years, so it’s not totally impossible that the 8th district could emerge again as a top battleground.

“Because of Burlington County burgeoning, [LD8 is] a place where people would not be surprised if, at some point, it falls,” he said. “It may flip ahead of schedule, if things are going really right.”

And more?

Curiously missing from 2023 discussions on both sides of the aisle are four Republican-held districts that voted for Joe Biden and for last year’s congressional Democrats: the 21st, 25th, 39th, and 40th districts. All are historically Republican districts that zoomed leftwards in the Trump era while still remaining supportive of their Republican legislators.

The 21st district, in particular, could be a major danger spot for Republicans at some point; it supported Biden by 17 points, and State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield)’s seven-point victory in 2021 was the smallest Republican Senate margin in decades despite the statewide red wave.

But Democrats made serious attempts to flip the 21st, 25th, and 39th districts in previous cycles, and came up short each time. This year, with so many other districts on the horizon, it’s not likely that they invest that same level of effort into flipping seats that have spurned them so many times before. 

“If Democrats want to waste their time and money in targeting these districts, just as they did for most of the previous cycles, I would encourage them to do so,” Szymanski said. “The quality of representation in all of these places is second to none. Our Republican legislators know their constituents like the back of their hand, and serve them extraordinarily well.”

The big picture

Republicans want 2023 to be a big year for their party, and the way they see it, that’s very much on the table.

“When Republicans talk about and run on the right issues, and when we wage strong campaigns with strong candidates, the odds are in our favor,” Szymanski said. “And we are doing just those things in 2023.”

But while a 2021-esque red wave is absolutely possible, it’s not a certainty, and both Muller and Rasmussen believe 2023 will be more of a neutral election year.

“Right now, I feel like we’re in much more of a normalized environment [than 2021],” Muller said. “This is going to be a very turnout-driven electorate… In 2023, I think things are going to return back to normalcy, and it’s going to be about which campaigns are better at inspiring and motivating their base.”

 “I do not see any macro issue to suggest to me that you’re going to see any sort of macro change,” Rasmussen agreed. “I see micro issues that can lead to micro changes, and I see marginal results one way or the other. A district here, or two Assembly seats here. If you want to start seeing a wholesale change, if you want to start seeing a change in control of a chamber, I’m looking for bigger issues that I don’t see right now.”

There’s a long way to go until voters head to the polls. Primaries have to be won; general election campaigns have to be run; money has to be raised; and looming over it all is the 2024 presidential election, which (like it or not) will soon be in full swing.

By then, all of the analysis in this story could be woefully incorrect. Nine months is a political eternity, and there’s no telling what curveballs might come up between now and November 7. Last time around, Democrats started the cycle with hopes of expanding their majorities and ended it with a vanquished Senate President.

Will 2023 bring any similar shocks? Stick around and find out.

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