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Democratic Assembly candidates Gina LaPlaca, right, and Mark Natale

In the 8th district, it’s the Year of the Unforced Error

In the post-Howarth general election, Natale dog, LaPlaca scab blunders come out in final weeks of Assembly race

By Nikita Biryukov, October 25 2019 3:11 pm

To a large degree, the Assembly race in the eighth legislative district has been defined by unforced error, though not by those of any of the candidates still in the running.

Assemblyman Joe Howarth’s delayed response to State Sen. Dawn Addiego’s party switch in January directly led to his losing the support of the district’s Republican leaders.

It directly led to former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield entering the race for the Republican nod, and ultimately, it led to the end of Howarth’s tenure as an assemblyman.

It’s impossible to know whether the situation would have played out differently had Howarth responded immediately to Addiego’s defection, as Assemblyman Ryan Peters did, as sources on both sides of the aisle have told the New Jersey Globe that Howarth sought to jump ship along with Addiego.

Howarth has consistently denied attempting to do so, but rumors of his entreaties to Democrats would likely have become public in either case. Democrats tried to bring Peters to their side as well, but he didn’t bite.

Now, with Howarth off the ballot and Peters and Stanfield fighting against Democrats in November, it matters little. It remains to be seen how much unforced errors made by Democrats Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale will affect the race.

Last week, the New Jersey Globe reported that LaPlaca crossed the picket line when 36,000 Verizon workers, nearly 5,000 in New Jersey, went on strike in 2016.

She posted a photo to Facebook commemorating her scab a year later.

That error led her to lose support from the state AFL-CIO, and other unions, including the New Jersey branch of Communications Workers of America have they wouldn’t back her over the incident.

Still, it’s not clear that the error is at the top of voters’ minds.

“The central labor council in Burlington is sticking with the Democrats and they’re a considerable force,” Rowan Institute for Public Policy Director Ben Dworkin said. “So, there was rhetoric that made it a tough couple days, but I’m not sure on the ground how much it really meant.”

It’s also unclear how much of an effect a Republican digital ad attacking Natale for leaving one his dogs outside in freezing temperatures will have on the race.

Dworkin doesn’t expect either Democratic error to define the race.

“It’s not that it won’t, it’s that it’s not likely,” Dworkin said. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars that are being spent between these two campaigns in district eight are going to be focused on the issues that rank the highest with the electorate, and I think that’s where we’ll, when you ask voters in exit polls, that is where their attention will be.”

Natale said he did not realize he had only let one of his two dogs inside as he rushed out of the house with his then two-year-old daughter and returned to let the dog inside after he was contacted by police called in by his neighbors in response to the dog’s cries.

The dog was unharmed.

Natale’s error has a clear parallel on the national level.

In 2012 and 2008, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney came under fire for transporting his dog Seamus in a wind-proof carrier on top of his car.

The incident captivated the media — the news coverage of the 1983 deed was significant enough to earn it well-sourced Wikipedia article — but it, at best, played a minimal role in Romney’s electoral losses those years.

“I don’t think that Mitt Romney lost his election to President Obama because of the dog story,” Dworkin said. “Natale, win or lose, I don’t think the dog issue is going to make enough of a difference to reshape this race.”

Republicans outside the district may be inclined to agree.

“My initial reaction is, if that’s the kind of content they’re relying on to move the needle, that’s a bad sign — coming from a dog lover,” a Republican operative not involved in the eighth district race told the New Jersey Globe.

Peters and Stanfield have, to this point, avoided making any highly-publicized unforced errors, though there’s still time for that to change.

Though, it’s possible they’ve already made one by focusing on Natale’s dog.

“What’s clear is that we spend time focused on these issues rather than the things that voters are at least telling pollsters that they really want to talk about — taxes, affordability, education, healthcare. The things that keep coming up,” Dworkin said.

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