Andrew Zwicker has secured the organization line for State Senate in Somerset County, ending a stalemate with Democratic County Chair Peg Schaffer over residency issues and making him the front runner to become the first Democrat since 1902 to win the Somerset-based 16th district Senate seat.
Schaffer agreed to back Zwicker, and in return, his old Assembly seat will go to a Somerset County Democrat, according to two individuals briefed on the details who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Zwicker’s Assembly seat will go to Sadaf Jaffer, a former Montgomery mayor who would become the first Asian American woman and first Muslim to serve in the New Jersey legislature. She will also get the Democratic organization line in Middlesex County.
If she wins, Jaffer will become the first woman from Somerset County to serve in the legislature since Denise Coyle left the legislature in 2012.
Gov. Phil Murphy had is a self-proclaimed fan of Zwicker — “I love the guy,” Murphy said at a public event early this month. “Andrew and I had each other at hello,” but punted on an endorsement until the deal with another ally, Schaffer, was complete.
Multiple sources confirmed that Murphy’s team had been integrally involved in brokering a deal that essentially clears the field for Zwicker.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) will seek re-election to a third term on the lines in Somerset and Middlesex with Zwicker and Jaffer. They are expected to be joined on the line by Gov. Phil Murphy, the titular head of the Democratic Party and candidate for re-election this year.
The 16th district race has been in flux since Republican incumbent Christopher Bateman announced four weeks ago that he would not seek re-election.
The seat starts out as leans Democrat, providing the best opportunity in the state to flip a Senate seat. In 2020, Joe Biden carried the 16th district by 28,165 votes, 61%-38%, over Donald Trump.
Zwicker, a 56-year-old South Brunswick resident, had been planning a Senate bid since last year, with or without Bateman in the race.
He officially launched his Senate bid earlier this month with the endorsement of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe – and with statements of praise from two other county chairs: Arlene Quinones Perez of Hunterdon and Janice Mironov of Mercer.
Schaffer has opposed Zwicker’s ascent to the Senate, pushing for a senator from Somerset County who might give her senatorial courtesy over gubernatorial nominations.
Shaffer offered Zwicker the organization line if he moved to Somerset, but he declined.
For a short time, Schaffer forged an unlikely alliance with Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney, the best head counter in Trenton, was concerned by the prospect of Middlesex County increasing the size of their Senate delegation.
Zwicker never flinched.
The move put Schaffer win bind as she attempted to flex muscles that she didn’t necessarily possess, especially since Zwicker had developed a following in Somerset independent of the county chair’s acolytes.
Zwicker was prepared to run his own line in Somerset, if he had to – a move that could have put two Democratic county commissioners in harm’s way.
Freiman was prepared to endorse Zwicker and run a line with him if his hand were forced.
“Andrew Zwicker was always going to be a formidable candidate, and the best evidence is that no challenger has materialized against him. Because he represents one of the state’s precious few electorally competitive districts, he knows how important retail politics is,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He’s not afraid to put either shoe leather or big data into his campaigning.”
In the end, Schaffer will likely wind up with a few extra plumbs. Her ask list – it wasn’t just an Assembly seat – isn’t readily available.
Still, the race is not yet over.
All the candidates need to get through the party convention process in order to officially secure organization lines in Somerset, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
The two Somerset candidates, Laurie Poppe and Zenon Christodoulou, will stand down now that Zwicker and Jaffer have secured Schaffer’s backing, the NJ Globe has learned.
Three other candidates are still seeking the open Assembly seat — Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone, Flemington Council President Caitlin Giles-McCormick, and Dr. Chris Fistonich, a Yale-educated PhD immunologist, cybersecurity analyst and opera singer.
While about 26% of Democratic primary votes come from Hunterdon County and around 13% from Mercer, there is no clear path for another candidate to beat the Zwicker-Freiman-Jaffer slate, even if they secured their home county organizations.
Zwicker, a scientist who ousted a Republican incumbent by 78 votes in 2015, will now face Republican Michael Pappas, a former congressman, in a bid for an open seat in district that was once solidly Republican but now favors Democrats.
Pappas will be joined on the Republican ticket Hunterdon Central Regional Board of Education President Vincent Panico and Manville Councilman Joe Lukac for Assembly.
Republicans welcomed to Jaffer to the campaign by decrying her leadership on the construction of a new municipal building in Montgomery.
The public should know why the price of the new Montgomery Municipal Building increased by a factor of sixty percent after you became mayor,” said Tim Howes, the Somerset County Chairman. “It’s this type of unrestrained spending that is making New Jersey unaffordable for the middle class.”