As Primary Day nears, vast majority of legislative candidates are running unopposed

Some blame the county line for dissuading candidates from running. Lawmakers cite other reasons

Political observers cite ballot design, low pay for lawmakers, and general happiness with party-backed candidates as reasons why there are so few competitive races. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey’s 120 legislative seats are on the ballot this year, with elections coming after a round of redistricting and a string of retirements that left 20 races without an incumbent.

Yet, the number of contested races in next week’s primary elections remains stubbornly low: Just 10 Senate and 11 Assembly primaries are contested. The overwhelming majority of candidates on the ballot have no opponents, while a handful of primaries have zero candidates. 

This is common in New Jersey and elsewhere. In 2021, the last year our Legislature was on the ballot, there were only 19 contested races. Nationwide, most state legislative primaries were uncontested in 2022. 

Why do so few state lawmakers have to worry about intraparty challenges? Depends on who you ask.

Progressive activists blame ballot design, which they say makes party-backed candidates so powerful that insurgent candidates rarely take a shot at challenging them. Party officials say in low-turnout years — this year is expected to be one — it’s hard to motivate people to vote, let alone run for office. Candidates themselves say that when constituents are happy with the services they receive, would-be challengers have no incentive to run.

Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) is one of the many state senators running unopposed in this year’s primary.

“If, as an elected official at the local, county, state, or federal level, if you’re observed or viewed as not doing the proper job or representing your people in a proper way, then they will find someone to run against you,” Johnson said. “If an elected official does his or her job to the satisfaction of those folks who vote for them, then those folks will probably not be inclined to run against him or her.”

Sen. Gordon Johnson has no opponent in his primary next week. He said uncontested races indicate overall happiness with the party’s selected candidate. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The line

Arati Kreibich, democracy director for progressive group the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said it would make sense for there to be a slew of contested primaries this year, considering how many lawmakers decided not to seek reelection.

From Sen. Fred Madden in the 4th District to Sen. Sam Thompson in the 11th to Sen. Nicholas Sacco in the 32nd, the largest number of lawmakers in nearly two decades opted not to seek a return to their seats this year. That leaves an unusual number of races with no incumbent running, the kind of environment that gives first-time candidates an advantage.   

But the number of open seats did not lead to a surge in people seeking office.  

“There are a lot of folks who are interested, anecdotally, who don’t bother because they know that if they don’t have the line, they’re not going to win, and there’s a high cost in attempting to buck the system,” Kreibich said.

“The line” refers to how most New Jersey counties (all but Salem and Sussex) design their ballots. They let primary candidates who have the backing of county political machines be grouped together on the ballot, which activists say gives the party-backed candidates an unfair advantage. Kreibich and New Jersey Working Families Alliance are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks to force county clerks to stop designing their ballots this way. 

“I think people increasingly understand that if you don’t have the party line, you’re not going to win. So they either drop out, or they don’t run because they don’t think they’re going to have the line,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy at Rutgers University.

About 9% of primary races are contested, according to a review of candidates running in both Republican and Democrat primaries across the 120 open legislative seats (in eight contests, there is no candidate). Nationwide, the figure hovers near 18%.

Candidates running this year with party backing concede it is an advantage, but they disagree that the paucity of contested races indicates the system is unfair. Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), running unopposed in the 7th District’s Democratic primary, said candidates “earn the right to be on the line” by seeking support from party members.

When Murphy first ran for Assembly in 2018, she wasn’t approached to run by Democratic Party officials, she said — she sought their endorsement at the county party convention. These conventions are where party members decide who will get the line in upcoming primaries.

“You let people know who you are, you’re calling people, you’re reaching out to them. That’s what matters, not where you’re placed on the ballot,” Murphy said. “The line is something where the parties say, ‘Look, I trust this person, I want this person to represent us,’ and that’s all the line is more than anything else.” 

Rubin has studied the effect of the line and said her research shows its power. Only one state legislative candidate since 2009 didn’t get the line and won anyway: Sen. Nia Gill, who lost party support that year and won anyway.

“That’s six legislative election cycles, and not a single incumbent who was on the line lost. The only ones who lost, it’s because they got booted off the line,” she said. “Why would someone take the time and resources to run?”

Gill, a Democrat from Essex County, lost party support again this year in her fight for reelection against fellow Democrat Sen. Richard Codey. Codey is the favorite to win.

Sen. Holly Schepisi said would-be candidates may shy away from running because the salary of a legislator isn’t high enough to be someone’s primary source of income. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Other hurdles

Party leaders dismiss the idea that the line leads to uncontested primaries and unfair advantages for party-backed candidates, and cite other reasons to explain why so many legislative candidates run with no opposition: interest in running for higher profile positions, lack of financial resources, or even simply that they’re fine with whomever their party backs for the nomination.

Some question whether the lack of contested primaries is a bad thing. Michael Suleiman, the Atlantic County Democratic chair, noted that Democrats will have a tough time in November in some South Jersey districts like the 3rd and the 8th, so easy-win primaries are a plus.

Suleiman noted that Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), a top target of the GOP in the fall, has no Democratic challenger in the 11th District next week.

“I see some of the folks on Twitter, they want primaries at every level, everywhere, every often. Why?” he said. “A primary for primary’s sake — and that’s not to deter people if they want to run — but by that logic, Vin Gopal should have a primary challenge in 11. But he’s got a tough time on his own already, so why primary him?”

He added: “In a low-turnout election like this where it’s a war of inches, I don’t know why that’s a bad thing that we can put more money into the general election.”

This may be especially true for Republicans, who are the minority in the Legislature but hope that in a year where national Democrats like President Biden or U.S. Sen Cory Booker are not on the ballot, the GOP may be able to claw its way into the majority in a state where they face a major registration disadvantage.

“I think people are realizing that it’s time for the Republicans to take back control of both houses,” said Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), who is running unopposed in the 30th District’s Republican primary. “Therefore, we’ve come together and said, ‘Let’s not fight and spend our money in primaries. Let’s hold our money for general elections.’”

Money is also an impediment for candidates. Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) said the salary you get once you win — $49,000 — may not be appealing for most people who think of running for office. Schepisi is unopposed for the GOP nomination in the 39th District.

“For many years, I was a solo practitioner attorney. I had no health insurance. My husband had no health insurance. So we pay 100% for health insurance if we want it,” she said. “So it’s not something that people do for the money.” 

Some people who have their sights set on politics go straight to running for national seats, added Suleiman.

Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Essex), who has no opponent in the 28th District’s Democratic primary, agrees with Johnson that an uncontested race could mean that would-be office-seekers in the district are happy with the one declared candidate.

“They may just support the person that is running and share the same common values and beliefs,” Burgess said.

An earlier version of this story should have said there are 11 contested Assembly races and 10 contested in the Senate.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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.