GOP-to-Dem flip at center of Burlington state Senate race

Republicans see Sen. Addiego’s defection as a path to victory

By: - October 8, 2021 7:00 am

State Sen. Dawn Addiego, left, is facing Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield in the 8th District. (Photos courtesy of Adding and Stanfield)

A state senator’s former allegiance to the Republican Party lies at the center of what is expected to be one of the state’s most competitive legislative races.

Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington) has served in the legislature since 2008 and has been a senator since 2010, but this year’s campaign is her first as a Democrat. Addiego switched parties two years ago.

Her opponent in the Senate race, Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Burlington), a former six-term Burlington County sheriff who once ran on a ticket with Addiego, sees the issue as a path toward reclaiming the seat for her party.

“On the Republican side, people that took the time to knock on doors and contribute to her campaign over years and years are very disappointed in her,” Stanfield said. “It’s actually surprising the amount of venom some people feel.”

But the defection, at this point, is old news made yet older, and the Democrat is banking on voters preferring a lawmaker with greater ability to impact the legislative process. A Republican senator, she said, would find herself hamstrung by Democrats’ perennial control in Trenton.

“It’s been almost three years that I’ve switched parties, and I’m still Dawn Marie Addiego. I haven’t changed. I’m doing what’s in the best interest of the people I represent, and that’s having the ability to have a seat at the table on every issue, and I do,” she said.

When Addiego became a Democrat, she blamed in part the shift in the values of the national Republican Party.

Democrats hold 25 of the chamber’s 40 seats, and it’s exceedingly unlikely this year’s elections will flip control of the Senate.

Still, defending Addiego’s seat is a priority for Democratic leaders, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, who this summer promised to put $10 million behind Democratic candidates in the 2nd and 8th districts.

American Democratic Majority, a super PAC with ties to Norcross, has already launched mail and television ad campaigns in the Burlington County-based 8th District. Stanfield said the ad blitz tells voters “Dawn is beholden to a lot of people, and I’m not.”

“All these people that are putting their money into this campaign, smearing us with lies. It’s discouraging, but people see through it,” Stanfield said.

The GOP candidates also have some outside money at their backs. The Republican State Leadership Conference on Monday announced a $700,000 ad campaign across five New Jersey districts, including the 8th, where it launched a spot attacking Addiego over her party switch that claims the move was self-serving and left her beholden to Norcross and Sweeney.

Stanfield and her running mates, Hammonton Councilman Michael Torrissi and Lumberton township administrator Brandon Umba, have faced Democratic attacks over a $3,000 campaign contribution from Ocean County Strong, a political action committee.

Each of the campaigns has already stood up their own messaging operations. Both are on television airwaves and in mailboxes, and the candidates and their volunteers have started door knocking that will continue through Election Day.

One of the Democratic spots, some of which also run on social media platforms, attacks Stanfield for her no vote on a 2020 bill creating a new tax bracket for those earning more than $1 million annually. That bill also launched a one-shot property tax rebate program that sent voters with dependent children checks for up to $500 this year.

Another ad hits the former sheriff for voting against a bill allowing essential workers who contracted COVID-19 to qualify for aid under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Program.

The Republicans have been less active in digital spaces, though Stanfield last week launched a Facebook ad attacking Addiego over her party switch. Umba has placed a Facebook ad charging Medford school board member Allison Eckel — an Assembly candidate on Addiego’s ticket with Mark Natale — wants to defund the police.

Like her opponent, the incumbent senator charged some of the attacks in the race have been less than truthful.

“Straight from the beginning, Jean was telling lies about my record, and I see that it’s continuing in the ads that she’s running,” she said.

Addiego’s decamp from the Republican party in January 2019 upended the district and ended the political career of then-Assemblyman Joe Howarth (R-Burlington), a longtime friend and running mate.

Howarth did not speak to Republican officials in the district for two days following Addiego’s defection, fueling rumors that he too was considering a swap. That silence and the speculation it spawned led GOP party leaders to pull support for Howarth.

The demographics of the district are against the Republicans. Though Democrats have long held a voter registration edge in Burlington County, the Republican Party there held control through sheer organizational strength until recent years.

In 2017, the GOP held all five seats on Burlington’s county commissioner board. Today, all five are Democrats, and Democrats have expanded their voter-registration edge in the district to 8,278, from 6,919 on election day in 2019.

But those gains have done little to aid Democrats in legislative races. Stanfield and Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Burlington), who is not seeking re-election, expanded their margins of victory that year, if narrowly.

“They know that we’re workers and that we’ll listen to people and get things done,” Stanfield said. “That cuts across so many party lines. I’ve had lots of people tell me that they always voted Democrat but they still vote for me. I’ve had that over the years as sheriff and even my last Assembly race, so I’m not really concerned by the numbers.”

Addiego isn’t taking it for a sure thing either.

“You can’t take that for granted,” she said. “The whole thing comes down to getting people to the polls, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.