Lawmakers gear up for legislative races under new district maps
All 120 of New Jersey's legislative seats are up for grabs this year. They'll be the first races under a compromise map adopted in 2022. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
November’s election is two months in the rearview mirror, but campaign season never really stops in New Jersey.
The state will hold legislative races in November under new district boundaries, and the redrawn lines have Republicans feeling good about expanding their membership in a year where all 120 seats in the Assembly and Senate will come up for a vote.
The new districts also set the stage for a handful of potentially dramatic contests. One could see two longtime Democratic senators — Dick Codey and Nia Gill — face off in a primary as they fight to remain in the Senate. Another could find Democrat Stephen Sweeney, the former Senate president unseated in a stunning defeat in 2021, vying again against his vanquisher, Republican Sen. Ed Durr.
Democrats control both chambers along narrow margins after a strong Republican showing in 2022 that left the majority party with 46 seats in the Assembly and 24 in the Senate.
The GOP presence in the Assembly is the broadest it has been since Jim McGreevey was governor in the early aughts, and Republicans could win a majority in the chamber for the first time in more than 20 years by flipping seats in just three legislative districts and holding all the ones they control now.
This has given Republicans a sense of momentum as 2023 starts, despite a disappointing showing for the party in last year’s congressional races.
The new path provides Republicans with a path to more victories while shoring up some vulnerable districts, according to Republican strategist Jeanette Hoffman.
“In 2021, when we didn’t have a great map, we were able to pick up seven seats. We took control of 121 mayor and council seats. We took control just last election of a number of different county commissioner boards,” Hoffman said.
The most closely watched race will probably be the one between Codey and Gill, Essex County Democrats who are slated for a primary showdown because Gill’s hometown of Montclair was moved into the 27th District.
Neither incumbent is expected to bow out of the race, though Codey is broadly expected to snag organizational support for his reelection bid. That support would come with a coveted position on the ballot grouping Codey with other county-backed candidates running in the district.
Incumbent legislators who run off the line typically lose, but Gill, a maverick who has often broken with party and chamber leadership, beat the line in 2003, narrowly defeating then-Assemblyman LeRoy Jones, who now chairs the Democratic State Committee and the Essex County Democratic Committee.
“That was a long time ago. Does Nia Gill still retain that?” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “If they don’t retain that personal strength or personal following, is there anything to suggest they beat the line? Because if you don’t have that, the line is going to win.”
Democrats are expected to go on the offensive in the 3rd District, where Durr and his running mates swept Sweeney and Sweeney’s two Assembly mates out of office.
It’s not clear yet whether Sweeney will seek to reclaim his seat in the 3rd, located mostly in Gloucester County. He is also mulling whether to run for governor in 2025.
Asked if he’s made any decisions about 2023, Sweeney said, “Not yet, but I will. Just not yet.”
Durr, whose surprise win over the state’s longest-serving Senate president made him a Republican rising star overnight, said he isn’t thinking much about a potential rematch or any other potential challengers.
“To be honest with you, I’m not focused on what possibilities could be ahead of me. I’m focused on just what I need to do for my constituents, and I will address whatever is put in front of me as far as a race goes,” he said.
Durr added he will absolutely seek a second term.
Beating back GOP strength at the Shore
Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) found himself the lone Democratic legislator in the 11th district when Assemblywomen Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno, both Monmouth Republicans, defeated his running mates in 2021 after a campaign that hammered the incumbents on crime and their support of legislation that afforded early release to thousands of state inmates.
Gopal, a moderate who has strong name recognition, will run in a district that is slightly more Democratic than it was in 2021, but Republicans are expected to play heavily for his seat.
“Republicans have absolutely signaled from the first day, almost from Election Day two years ago, that they’re coming after Vin Gopal, and they attack him on every vote that he makes,” Rasmussen said.
While it’s not yet clear who will challenge Gopal, the district’s base of fiscally conservative voters may make poor terrain for Democrats, who launched efforts to address the state’s affordability after their 2021 losses.
Gopal also has been aggressive about combatting auto thefts in Monmouth County, a sign Democrats are sensitive to concerns about crime in the Jersey Shore district.
Democrats are also likely to make a serious bid to reclaim the district’s Assembly seats.
Democratic worries about 38th District don’t stop
Democrats’ perennial worries about incumbent legislators in the Bergen County-based 38th district are expected to persist into 2023.
Despite its position in deep-blue Bergen, Gov. Phil Murphy won the district by only five points in 2022, and the district grew slightly more Republican after lines were redrawn, leaving incumbent Sen. Joe Lagana and Assembly members Lisa Swain and Chris Tully, all Bergen Democrats, in a potentially precarious position.
Barry Wilkes, former chair of the Glen Rock GOP, has launched a campaign for Assembly there, and Paramus Councilman Robert Kaiser is expected to challenge Lagana.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said while the district may not be as competitive as, say, the 11th or 16th, Republicans have limited opportunities to expand their ranks in the Legislature, and the 38th provides just one such chance.
Towns like Paramus may be helpful, he added.
“Paramus is the biggest town in the district and is a bellwether town,” Dworkin said. “It’s tough — sometimes they vote Democratic and sometimes they vote Republican, so it’s always competitive on some level.”
A rematch in the 16th?
The 16th District grew slightly more Republican after lines were redrawn, providing Republicans with a chance to win back the seat they held before Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) retired in 2021.
Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) won the district’s Senate seat that year, beating Republican Michael Pappas, a former congressman, by roughly seven points. Pappas and Hunterdon County Commissioner John Lanza, a Republican who was reelected to a fourth term in 2022, are reportedly considering challenges against Zwicker.
The 16th is a former GOP stronghold that started turning more Democratic in 2016, and Zwicker’s ascension to the Senate put it under complete Democratic control. Democrats are in a better position there, according to Rasmussen.
“On the other hand, you don’t want to count the Republicans out because they kept the county close, even if they did lose all the races in 2022,” he said.
Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset), whose status as a first-term legislator means fewer voters are likely to recognize her name on the ballot, is particularly vulnerable.
Democratic Defense in District 4
South Jersey Democrats are expected to play heavily in defense of incumbents in the 4th District, where additions of increasingly Republican Atlantic County towns like Buena, Buena Vista, and Franklin Township have made Republican victories more likely.
Republican observers believe the party can capitalize on wins at the county level — like those that gave them control over county commissioner boards in Salem and Gloucester counties — to further expand their representation in South Jersey.
“I think voters specifically in the southern part of the state are concerned about taxes, affordability, education, and I think those are all issues that Republicans speak better to than Democrats, specifically at the state level,” said Hoffman, the Republican operative.
Though a full slate of challengers has yet to emerge, Stephen Pakradooni, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought the district’s Senate and Assembly seats in recent years, has announced a campaign for Senate there.
Benson departure could create opening in the 14th
Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer) launched a campaign for Mercer County executive in December, leaving his legislative seat open for a challenge this year.
While the Mercer and Middlesex-based district is good ground for Democrats, the redrawn district contains some swingier towns — like Monroe and Hamilton Townships — that could bend far enough to the right to award Republicans at least one seat, though a GOP win there would likely require low enthusiasm among Democrats.
“The map is going to be a big difference for Republicans in this election just because it’s significantly better after redistricting than it was for Republicans for the past two decades,” Hoffman said.
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