Four years ago, State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) was in the fight for her political life.
Addiego, a Republican former assemblywoman and county freeholder, won her first term to the state’s Burlington County-based 8th Senate district uncontested in 2011, and was re-elected by 27 points in 2013 on Gov. Chris Christie’s coattails. But in 2017, running in a district that Hillary Clinton had carried and fighting the toxic influence of Donald Trump in the suburbs, Addiego found herself in an unexpectedly competitive race.
She ultimately beat Democrat George Youngkin by around four points, 52-48%. Though Addiego’s margin was well lower than in earlier races, she had proved something: she could survive even in the Trump-era Republican Party.
Today, Addiego is once again in the fight for her political life – and a lot has changed in the four years she’s been off the ballot.
To the shock of New Jersey’s political observers, Addiego announced in January 2019 that she was switching parties from Republican to Democrat, giving Democrats their largest Senate majority since the early 1980s.
“As gridlock in Washington dominates the news, it has become increasingly clear that in order to effect change you have to be part of the discussion and not on the outside looking in,” she said at the time. “The people of the 8th district did not elect me to be content in the role of loyal opposition.”
Democrats, especially Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), embraced her with open arms. Addiego gave Sweeney one additional vote in his quest to retain control of his caucus, and in return benefited from having a party affiliation that seemed to better match her rapidly changing district.
Meanwhile, Republicans cried foul, and quickly began strategizing for how to take down the traitor in their midst. They held both Assembly seats in 2019 despite spirited Democratic campaigns to flip them – and despite the increasingly Democratic nature of Burlington County.
The sum of these many moving parts will finally come to a head this November, with Republicans fielding Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) in what is widely regarded as the “marquee” legislative race of the year.
Only one candidate will emerge victorious: the party loyalist turned party switcher, or her former political ally turned political rival. Has New Jersey legislative politics ever been quite so cinematic?
The senator and the sheriff
Unlike some other districts, where Democrats or Republicans – or both – insist they’re well ahead, both parties are aware that the 8th district race will be a dogfight no matter who wins.
“I think this is the marquee legislative race in the entire state right now,” said Dan Scharfenberger, the executive director of the Senate Republican Majority Campaign Committee. “I think it will be a real referendum on Dawn Addiego.”
Michael Muller, the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee’s executive director, concurred about the district’s extremely competitive nature, though he disagreed on its direction.
“It’s the quintessential swing district that has been very competitive in recent years,” he said. “It’s been burgeoning for Democrats, and we right now have been running an exceptional race.”
The biggest issue in the race – or, at least, what Republicans want to be the biggest issue in the race – is Addiego’s party switch. Addiego’s reasoning at the time was that the Republican Party had moved far from its center-right roots, and that her own positions remained unchanged but fit better in the Democratic Party.
Muller said that such messaging can only be an asset for Addiego in a district that has long preferred moderate legislators.
“Senator Addiego has always been a moderate, centrist type of representative,” Muller said. “To the voters, she always had an ability to win crossover support from the left and right of the spectrum… She’s in a great position heading into the fall.”
But Scharfenberger made the counterargument that the party switch demonstrates Addiego’s political rootlessness, rather than any deeply held values.
“Imagine, overnight, making a complete 180 in everything that you vote for, stand for, and fight for in the State Senate,” he said. “What people understand in the short span of an election is a fake politician… That’s everything about Dawn Addiego. People really recognize that.”
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, noted that, whatever voters may think of Addiego’s party switch, it has certainly galvanized the Republican party faithful.
“If you’re an involved Republican, there’s a sense of betrayal, and it may motivate you to work harder,” Rasmussen said. “There’s no question that the organizational Republicans are far more motivated, and they’re working overtime to make sure they pay her back in kind.”
“Dawn Addiego is an exciting candidate for us to beat,” Scharfenberger agreed. “It’s certainly creating a lot of excitement within the Republican party to unseat her.”
Scharfenberger added that Republicans are excited to contrast Addiego’s history with that of Stanfield, who served as sheriff of increasingly blue Burlington County for nearly 20 years before ascending to the Assembly.
“[Stanfield was] a tough-as-nails Burlington County sheriff for so many years, who has served the people here in South Jersey so well with integrity every step of the way,” he said. “You’ll always know where Jean Stanfield stands.”
Democrats have gone on the airwaves with two ads slamming Stanfield, perhaps in recognition of the assemblywoman’s longtime positive image in the district. Addiego had also significantly outraised Stanfield as of pre-primary election campaign finance reports, and state Democrats are making a huge investment on her behalf.
This last factor is among the things that makes Rasmussen skeptical of Republican chances in the district this cycle.
“[Republicans are] up against a tsunami of money,” he said. “They’re up against the rapidly changing voter registration statistics. They’re up against a governor who’s going to do very well in the district. It’s a lot to contend with. Can they win? Of course they can win. I’m not counting them out… But I would say that there are some daunting factors that they’re running up against.”
Whose side is history on?
Depending on which data you look at, the 8th district could either be a lock for Republicans or a golden opportunity for Democrats.
Focusing on past state legislative elections, you might think Republicans have the district in the bag. Addiego’s party switch notwithstanding, Republicans haven’t lost an election in the 8th district since former Assemblyman John Sweeney (D-Florence) broke through to win a single term in 1973. Prior to the Trump era, it was unusual for Democrats to even get 40% of the vote.
(Former 8th district Assemblyman Francis Bodine switched parties from Republican to Democrat in 2007 after losing the support of the Burlington Republican Party organization, but was unable to win an election for the State Senate that year.)
Republicans’ success in the district matches a trend prevalent in the state’s suburban counties: even when Democrats break through on a federal level, voters are liable to stick with the moderate Republican legislators they’ve been electing for decades.
It’s why former State Sen. Diane Allen, now the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, was able to hold on for so long in the Burlington County-based 7th district, even as it voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates.
Yet as Rasmussen points out, although the 8th district has continued to support Republican legislative candidates, it’s zoomed to the left in virtually every other respect.
“The numbers are just moving so quickly and so strongly against [Republicans], that for them to be successful they’re going to have to buck that statewide and countywide trend that we’re seeing,” Rasmussen said.
It’s true that Democrats have seen remarkable success in Burlington County in recent elections. Between 2017 and 2021, the board of county commissioners went from 5-0 Republican to 5-0 Democrat. Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), meanwhile, performed strongly in the county in his 2018 victory over Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-Toms River) in the 3rd district – and then romped even more thoroughly in 2020.
“I really am having a hard time seeing where the numbers work, even for a popular longtime politician like Stanfield,” Rasmussen said. “I know it’s a swing district. I see that. But I also see that Burlington County is on the move, and it is moving away from Republicans, as it has been for the last five or 10 years.”
Fourteen townships, five boroughs, and a town
The district itself covers a total of 20 mostly suburban South Jersey municipalities: 15 in Burlington County, four in Camden County, and one – Hammonton – in Atlantic County. Individually, none of them have a population greater than 50,000, meaning that no one town or city dominates the district.
The fragmentation of the district’s population also means that neither party has a consistent, large base of votes to grow on. While some municipalities like Pine Hill and Westampton are heavily Democratic, and others like Southampton and Waterford are more Republican, candidates can’t count only on friendly territory to win.
Instead, the battle for the district is fought in swing areas such as Evesham (the largest municipality in the district), Hainesport, and Medford.
In 2020, on his way to a seven-point victory districtwide, President Joe Biden won all three; the 4,000 votes Biden netted out of Evesham in fact accounted for nearly half of his overall 9,000 vote margin.
When Addiego won as a Republican in 2017, she too carried Evesham, Hainesport, and Medford, along with most of the district’s municipalities beyond its most consistently Democratic areas.
One further consideration in this year’s race is the district’s Black population. Burlington County is around 16% Black, and while most Black residents in the county are found in the more Democratic 7th district, 8% of the 8th district was Black as of the 2010 Census – a large enough community to be decisive in close elections.
None of the six candidates running for the seat this year are Black. But Addiego’s vote share is likely to be correlated with where the district’s Black population is concentrated, primarily in Pine Hill and around Lumberton – just as Youngkin’s was in 2017. Of the seven municipalities won by Youngkin, who is white, six had Black populations greater than 15% as of the 2010 Census.
The race for the lower chamber
As can sometimes happen in the event of a dramatic State Senate race in New Jersey, the Assembly candidates running in the 8th district have fallen out of the limelight to some extent, but both parties are confident that their side has the far superior slate.
Republicans are running Hammonton Councilman Michael Torrissi and Acting Manchester Township Administrator Brandon Umba, whom Scharfenberger described as “such great candidates.”
Even still, Scharfenberger said that 8th district Republicans are running as the “Stanfield team,” and the focus clearly remains on the top of the legislative ticket.
“If you’re going to vote for Jean Stanfield, we need you to vote for Mike Torrisi and Brandon Umba,” he said. “We need to send more Republicans, not less, back to the legislature to make the kind of reforms that we’re talking about in these campaigns.”
Democrats are fielding one of their two 2019 nominees, Mark Natale, as well as Lenape Regional High School District Board of Education member Allison Eckel, identically described by Muller as “really great candidates.”
In addition to waxing poetic about their own nominees, Muller and Scharfenberger both slammed their opponents in no uncertain terms. According to Scharfenberger, Natale is a “pretty clueless” perennial candidate who “doesn’t really have any idea of what he’s doing”; according to Muller, Torrissi is “another bad actor on taxes,” and Umba is “a pig at the trough.”
But for all the harsh words, and despite the campaigning that the four candidates are doing, Rasmussen thinks it may not make too much of an impact on the final result.
“[The Assembly candidates are] not what’s motivating individual behavior,” he said. “They are along for the ride to some extent. They are going to be tied to the fate of the top of the ticket.”
Six weeks to go
In most of the state’s legislative districts, it’s possible to at least attempt to handicap the result this November. An urban district in North Jersey? Probably Democratic. A sprawling district along the Jersey Shore? Most likely Republican.
The 8th district is not one such predictable district. Democrats have a demonstrably strong Senate candidate; so do Republicans. Republicans have a recent history of victories to show for themselves; so do Democrats, albeit not on a legislative level. Both parties are campaigning, spending, and messaging as though the race will be a toss-up until the very end.
For Democrats, the next month and a half is an opportunity to prove that joining their side pays political dividends. For Republicans, it’s a chance to mercilessly slam a politician who turned her back on them.
And for the voters of the 8th district, it means another six weeks of knocks on their front doors, flyers slid into their mailboxes, and ads cluttering their TV stations. Whatever the parties may do to try and win, the end of this story is in their hands.
This story was updated at 9:16 a.m. on September 27 to correct an error. Brandon Umba is no longer the Lumberton Township Administrator; he is currently the Acting Manchester Township Administrator.