Home>Highlight>Pundits split on risk of Bucco taking Senate seat while staying in Assembly race

State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton)

Pundits split on risk of Bucco taking Senate seat while staying in Assembly race

Maneuver could complicate 2020 special elections

By Nikita Biryukov, September 24 2019 5:37 pm

Pundits are split on how Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco’s decision to remain on the ballot for the Assembly after taking his late father’s seat in the State Senate will affect the race in the 25th legislative district.

“It’s tempting for insiders to say ‘this is the issue,’ and maybe it’ll get you a few headlines, but I’m not sure this is what everybody wants to vote on in November,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “The issues that Democrats have been attacking Bucco and Bergen on are still going to be there next week.”

Earlier Tuesday, the New Jersey Globe first reported that Bucco planned to replace late father in the State Senate but remain in his Assembly re-election race.

Several sources have told the Globe that Bucco plans to decline the Assembly seat if he wins a sixth term in November, triggering a special county convention to fill the post until a special election can be held that November.

State Sen. Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton) died on September 16 after nearly 25 years in the Legislature and more than 40 years in public office.  He was 81.

So far, the district’s Democratic candidates, Darcy Draeger and Lisa Bhimani, have mounted much of their campaign on Bucco’s record on guns, though they pivoted into an attack over his newfound campaign strategy.

Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, thinks the latter attacks could strike true.

“I think that you really run the risk of the perception being that you are trying to pull one on the voters by running for one office and hoping to be appointed to the other,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a lot to ask the public to swallow. To be honest, it’s a lot to ask the county party committee to swallow.”

Though it has long been a Republican stronghold, the 25th legislative district has grown increasingly competitive in recent years. Its race is projected to be one of the state’s most competitive this year.

If Bucco goes through with the plan and takes the Senate seat and wins his Assembly race, the district will host two special elections next year — one for the remainder of Senator Bucco’s unexpired term and another for the remainder of Assemblyman Bucco’s term.

“Let’s face it, Congresswoman Sherrill should win that district by a considerable margin, and you would expect that President Trump’s opponent will do very well in 2020,” Rasmussen said. “For the party committee to get behind this, they have to ignore the fact that you are going to have a very large Democratic turnout in 2020. You are going to have an electoral makeup in 2020 that may not be very friendly to the county party when it comes to running for these seats. They run a substantial risk by getting behind this plan.”

That said, there’s a race this year, and Bucco is undeniably the strongest Republican candidate in district. In the primary, he ran 18 points ahead of the second-place finisher in an otherwise-competitive four-way race.

It’s yet unclear how much money Bhimani and Draeger are willing to pour into publicizing Bucco’s maneuver, but they’ll likely have to spend significant sums to make it a salient campaign issue, Dworkin said.

“Insiders care about this stuff. I’m not sure whether it really matters to the average voter, who’s not following this,” Dworkin said. “The fact is most voters are not paying attention to these kinds of news developments. For them, it’s inside baseball, and come November, if this all comes to pass, the voters are going to see Bucco on the ballot, which is what they expected 24 hours ago.”

Past that, it’s unclear how effective the issue will be even if Democrats manage to spread the word, as similar maneuvers have had little impact in the past.

“Making an issue out of this kind of political maneuvering, historically, doesn’t seem to resonate with voters,” Dworkin said. Democrats were not hurt when they replaced Torricelli with Lautenberg at the last minute, and if anything, it takes Democratic campaign away from the issues that they’ve already been polling on, like guns and healthcare costs and other things.”

When Democrats pulled U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli from the ballot and replaced him with U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg at the last minute in 2002, voters took little notice and handed Lautenberg a 10-point victory over Republican Doug Forrester.

The circumstances are a little different this time around. For one, Toricelli was pulled form the ballot before votes were cast, though the oft-ignored deadline to replace candidates had passed then, as it has this year.

Republicans last won a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey in 1972.

Still, it’s always possible things will play out differently this time around.

“Yes, you have specific votes that Bucco has taken, like guns, but this certainly is more recent. It’s, I think, more egregious,” Rasmussen said. “It really assumes a lot. It assumes that the party and the voters are just going to say ‘ok,’ and I don’t think that’s a reasonable assumption.”

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