The likely best-case scenario for Republicans in 2019 is a pickup of ten Assembly seats, which would bring them to respectable and relevant 36 seats hearing into the second half of Gov. Phil Murphy’s term – and into legislative redistricting. But at the same time, the GOP will need to defend at least six of their own seats.
Republicans hope tax increases proposed by Murphy and approved by the Democratic majority in the New Jersey Legislature might spur GOP gains in 2019. Democrats think that Donald Trump will serve as a balance for any anger swing district voters have toward Murphy and the Legislature.
It would take an extraordinary turn of events for Republicans to take control of the State Assembly – the Democratic map takes care of that – and the GOP has virtually no chance to replicate the kind of anti-Jim Florio 1991 wave to add fifteen seats next year. There are not enough remotely competitive districts in the state to make that a viable option. So Murphy’s mid-term election is more about making the GOP minority more potent, to enhance their chances of a better map in the 2021 redistricting, and to protect the fifteen-member Republican Senate caucus.
Republicans have not won a seat in the Cape May/Cumberland district since 2013, where the personal popularity of Democrat Jeff Van Drew has helped the two Assembly seats to be in Democratic hands despite an electoral edge. The 1st has 3,359 more Republicans than Democrats and gave Donald Trump an 8,616-vote margin in 2016, 55%-45%.
If Van Drew wins election to Congress in November, Democrats will hold a special election convention to fill his seat next January. The leading Democratic candidate is Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, an Iraq War veteran who was handpicked by Van Drew after Matthew Milam resigned in 2013, although his succession to the Senate is not at all automatic. There is speculation among South Jersey Democrats that another Senate candidate could emerge – maybe even a party-switcher from Cape May.
If Andrzejczak gets the Senate seat, Democrats would then hold another special election convention to fill his Assembly seat. That means the Democratic Assembly candidates will either be Andrzejczak or his replacement, and two-term Assemblyman Bruce Land.
In 2015, Andrzejczak won by nearly 4,000 votes, while Land ousted freshman Republican Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi by 2,382 votes. Andrzejczak and Land were re-elected in 2017 by enormous landsides, with Land getting a second term by a 10,493-vote margin.
Democrats picked up an Assembly seat in 2013 when Vincent Mazzeo unseated three-term John Amodeo by just 40 votes, and another last year when John Armato easily won the seat left open when Chris Brown moved up to the State Senate. Now Brown wants to take back the two Assembly seats – if for no other reason than to reduce the field of opponents when he seeks re-election in 2021.
The 2nd district, like the rest of Atlantic County, is politically competitive. Hillary Clinton won the district with 56% in 2016, and the district has 14,549 more Democrats than Republicans. But Brown ousted interim Democratic State Sen. Colin Bell by 3,544 votes in 2017.
Some Democrats want Mazzeo to run for Atlantic County Executive against longtime GOP incumbent Dennis Levinson next year, possibly creating an open seat as Democrats look to control county government for the first time since 1983.
Democrat Jim Whelan, who passed away last fall, held the 2nd district Senate seat for ten years after defeating interim Republican Sonny McCullough in 2007. Still, the district sent two Republicans to the State Assembly for the first eight years Whelan was in the Senate.
Brown, a fierce critic of Senate President Steve Sweeney and the South Jersey Democratic machine, may want to establish the same kind of political control that Republican Bill Gormley held in Atlantic County from 1982 until his retirement in 2007.
Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling narrowly unseated two Republicans in 2015 and easily won second terms in 2017. Now the GOP wants the seats back. Last week, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso from the neighboring 13th district recorded a robocall that essentially called on voters to oust Downey and Houghtaling in 2019.
When the 11th district in Monmouth County was drawn in 2011, Republicans re-elected an incumbent State Senator and two incumbent Assemblywomen. But Democrats believed at the time that the seat would flip before the decade was over. Democrats have improved their voter registration edge from 10,120 in 2011 to 14,052 now; Clinton won 53% in 2016, down marginally from Barack Obama’s 56% in 2012.
Houghtaling won by 731 votes in 2015 and Downey by 253; they were re-elected by more than 5,000 votes last year. In 2017, Democrat Vin Gopal defeated three-term State Sen. Jennifer Beck by 4,158 votes.
The 16th is one of two districts in the state where voters elect a Republican Senator and two Democratic Assemblymen. With Republican State Sen. Kip Bateman narrowly (52%) re-elected to a four-year term in 2017, the GOP wants to take back the Assembly seats occupied by Democrats Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman.
Zwicker unseated incumbent Donna Simon in 2015 by a razor-thin margin of 78 votes, and then held the seat in 2017 by 5,192 votes over Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire. Freiman sough the Assembly seat left open when Jack Ciattarelli sought the GOP nomination for governor and beat Simon, seeking a comeback, by 3,040 votes.
The GOP held the 16th district since it was created in 1973, but the addition of Democratic strongholds of Princeton and South Brunswick in 2011 to the Somerset-based seat led to the flipping of the two Assembly seats. Democrats now have a voter registration edge of 12,973; Clinton won 57% in 2016, and Obama won 50.6% in 2012.
The stakes for Republicans in 2019 are high. If Zwicker and Freiman can hold their Assembly seats, many insiders think Bateman will call it quits in 2021. That could set up Zwicker as a prime candidate to increase the Democratic Senate majority in three years.
District 38 has always been competitive: incumbent Senators were ousted in 1973, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 2001. The Bergen County-based 38th was drawn to be a swing district, but the GOP last won in 2001 when Rose Heck was re-elected by 468 votes. Despite some aggressive challenges, State Sen. Bob Gordon was able to win in 2007, 2011 and 2013; by 2017, Gordon had made the seat safe for Democrats. In 2013, Republican Joseph Scarpa came within 56 votes of winning an Assembly seat; Scarpa is now a Democrat, a metaphor for the collapse of the Bergen GOP in recent years.
The election of Phil Murphy as governor has led to a sudden change in the legislative delegation. Gordon resigned to become a commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and was replaced in the Senate by Assemblyman Joseph Lagana. After failing to secure party support for the Senate seat, Assemblyman Tim Eustace resigned to become the deputy executive director of the North Jersey District Water Commission. Democrats picked Fair Lawn Mayor Lisa Swain and former Bergenfield Council President Christopher Tully to fill the two Assembly seats.
The turnover has triggered special elections for State Senate and Assembly in November 2018. Republicans have struggled to find candidates to run against Lagana, Swain and Tully, and GOP insiders say privately that they have no plans to seriously contest these seats this fall. They think their chances might improve in 2019.
There are 19,110 more Democrats than Republicans in the 38th, up considerably from their edge of 12,479 when the current lines were drawn. Clinton beat Trump by ten points, the same margin that Obama won by.
POSSIBLE DEMOCRATIC PICKUPS
Look for Democrats to contest seats in three districts where they came somewhat close to winning in 2017: the 8th, the 21st, and the 25th.
In the Burlington-based 8th, Democrats came within 645 votes of unseating Republican Assemblyman Joe Howarth, while Republican Ryan Peters won an open Assembly seat by 350 votes. There are 6,549 more Democrats in the 8th than Republicans. Clinton carried the district with 51%.
Democrat Lacey Rzeszowski came within 1,554 votes of taking out Assembly Minority Whip Nancy Munoz in the 21st district, while Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick was re-elected by 4,035 votes. The Union-Somerset-Morris 21st district had 2,570 more Democrats than Republicans and Clinton won it with 55%.
Twelve-term Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll is not seeking re-election in 2019 in a Morris County-based district that where there are 9,756 more Republicans than Democrats. In 2016, Clinton beat Trump in the 25th by 18 votes, and in 2017, State Sen. Anthony Bucco, a legislator since 1995, was re-elected with just 52%. Bucco’s son, Assembly Assistant Minority Leader Anthony Bucco, is up for re-election next year.
Democrats have a better chance of picking up seats in districts 12, 13, 26, and 39 than losing seats in districts 3, 7, 18, 19, 22, and 36. To be clear, none of those seats are in play at this time.