Control of two South Jersey districts is key in next week’s legislative races

Both parties are aiming for a flip in two Gloucester County districts

By: and - November 3, 2023 7:10 am

Democrats this November are hoping to unseat Sen. Ed Durr, left, and his team in the 3rd District. In the neighboring 4th District, Republicans want to take back control from Democrats, led by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty. (Photos by Amanda Brown and Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

In New Jersey politics, politicians, pundits, and the public alike often lament that South Jersey is the state’s most overlooked region, snagging less attention and dollars than their northern neighbors.

But with all 120 state legislative seats on the ballot in next week’s election, two of the most closely watched races are in the heart of South Jersey — and they have the potential to shake up the Democrat-controlled Statehouse, if Republicans can pull off a few more wins like the ones that gave the party big gains in Trenton in 2021.

The 4th Legislative District is one Republicans are hoping to flip this time. Democrat Paul Moriarty, the district’s current assemblyman, will face Republican Christopher Del Borrello in a district that GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli carried in 2021.

Next door, Democrats are fighting to flip the 3rd District, where Republican Sen. Ed Durr pulled off a shocking upset in 2021 to unseat then-Senate President Steve Sweeney. Durr now faces Democrat John Burzichelli, a former longtime assemblyman swept out of office two years ago along with Sweeney.

“In both districts, the chances of a flip are probably stronger than most other districts,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “The trend in South Jersey has really been towards the Republicans, so that could be enough to push them over.”

Campaign spending has soared in both districts in the battle to sway voter opinion.

Democrats have poured a ton of money into both districts, with Moriarty and Burzichelli in particular raising far more than in previous years after the Legislature earlier this year passed a controversial law that doubled political donation limits.

Republicans in the 4th District also have to contend with a blitz of spending by an independent group boosting minor-party candidates, prompting Del Borrello and the state GOP party to sue this week to freeze the group’s spending.

Democrats Dave Bailey Jr., Heather Simmons, and John Burzichelli are fighting to take back the GOP-held 3rd District. (Courtesy of the Burzichelli campaign)

Durr in the crosshairs

Durr was a trucker and political rookie few people had ever heard of when he beat Sweeney with very little money or media coverage two years ago.

Since then, Durr has become one of the Senate’s most conservative voices, introducing legislation to restrict abortion, loosen gun regulations, and bolster parents’ role in their children’s education and health care.

Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor and entertainment executive, was a 10-term Assemblyman who was serving as that body’s deputy speaker when he lost his bid for reelection in 2021.

Burzichelli attributed his 2021 loss to “a red wave of anger” over Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of the pandemic and former President Trump’s loss of the White House the prior year.

“We missed that until it was too late to react to it,” Burzichelli said. “So essentially, two years ago, we ran the wrong campaign, didn’t associate ourselves with the anger people were feeling, because we thought that the level of accomplishments we had delivered for the district would carry the day. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Fast-forwarding to here, it’s a clearer focus on what people are thinking.”

That’s affordability and abortion rights, he said. He doesn’t expect a repeat of 2021 will materialize at the polls next week.

“The feeling I’m getting from people is much different than it was two years ago. Democrats are very engaged. Unaffiliateds, particularly women, are very engaged because they realize what’s at stake here,” Burzichelli said. “This majority could flip. If the Legislature flips and majorities in both houses become the other party, there has to be deal-making. Women’s issues may not all collapse at one time, but there could be real erosion. There’s a lot of stake. So I think their engagement will play a large part in the outcome of this election.”

In a state where most residents support abortion access and during an election cycle where Democrats have focused on reproductive rights, Froonjian said Durr’s conservative abortion stance is “a real liability.”

“He basically served himself up to the Democrats on a silver platter with his (social media) post saying ‘a woman does have a choice — keep her legs closed.’ Republicans all over New Jersey probably wished Durr had just kept his mouth closed,” Froonjian said. “That was such an outlandish thing to say that even his fellow Republican candidates in South Jersey are distancing themselves. So he doesn’t even have everybody on his own team backing him.”

That includes his former running mate, Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer, who made an unsuccessful bid in the GOP primary in June to unseat him.

Durr regards the focus on his past abortion comments as part of “a smear campaign” — and a sign that voters shouldn’t support Burzichelli.

“It says a lot when a politician who spent 20 years in the Legislature can’t even talk about his record. He talks about his opponent and attacks me,” Durr said.

Aside from the abortion issue, though, Durr has other challenges in his bid for reelection, Froonjian said. He does not have the element of surprise that he had two years ago, he said, adding that the power of incumbency is at its weakest at this point in Durr’s career.

“Your best shot at beating an incumbent is the first time they run for reelection,” Froonjian said.

But Durr is undaunted.

“In my heart, I believe that we will win,” he said. “Now I don’t want to predict we’re going to win, because it’s always going to come down to the voters and who shows up to vote.”

Turnout during off-year elections typically is abysmal, and some observers have predicted it could sag as low as 10% next week.

Durr said affordability and parental rights are his biggest campaign priorities, along with fighting a proposed 18-mile commuter rail line called the Glassboro-Camden Line that he said many of the residents he encounters while campaigning oppose.

One incumbent and three newcomers are running for two Assembly seats in the 3rd.

Assemblywoman Bethanne McCarthy Patrick, a Republican and emergency medical technician, aims to retain her seat. Sawyer’s primary loss to Durr left her seat open.

Also vying for the Assembly seats are Republican Thomas Tedesco, a councilman in Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, and Democrats Dave Bailey Jr., CEO of the faith-based Alloway nonprofit Ranch Hope, and Heather Simmons, deputy director of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners.

Chris Del Borrello, Matthew Walker, and Amanda Esposito are the Republicans seeking to flip the Democratic-held 4th District. (Courtesy of the Del Borrello campaign)

Flipping the 4th

Republicans’ quest for the 4th District comes as longtime Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), who’s represented the district for nearly 20 years, ends his legislative career. A second incumbent, Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), is also not seeking reelection.

That leaves Moriarty, a former on-air television reporter who’s served in the Assembly since 2006, leading a ticket with Gloucester Township Councilman Dan Hutchison and Monroe school board member Cody Miller as Democrats seek to retain their majorities.

The three face challenges from Del Borrello and former Buena Councilman Matthew Walker and Amanda Esposito, a public school teacher.

Republicans, emboldened by the retirement of a longtime incumbent and bolstered by 2021 GOP victories that flipped the 3rd District and won the party seats elsewhere, have viewed Madden’s departure as an opportunity, though the length of Moriarty’s tenure and his time as a reporter could defray its effect.

“You have, effectively, an incumbent,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “The fact that it’s not Madden probably shouldn’t make too much of a difference from the Democratic perspective because they have a well-known person from the district running in his place.”

Candidate platforms are much the same in the 4th as they are elsewhere in the state: Republicans have run in opposition to Murphy’s ambitious wind energy plan and state guidance on equity in schools that some in the GOP have said take parents out of parenting.

“The message has been consistent on what I hear from voters, ‘Yes, we want clean energy, but we don’t think this is the appropriate way to do it,” Del Borrello said, adding that voters in the landlocked district care about wind energy because of tourism and their proximity to the shore.

Republicans got a windfall on windmills earlier this week after Danish wind giant Ørsted announced it would cease development of two 1,100-megawatt wind farms off Atlantic City’s coast, but Del Borrello said that news is too recent to make much of an impact with district voters.

Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on affordability, guns, and abortion, touting an expansion to the Anchor tax relief program that will send eligible seniors — the most reliable voting bloc there is — an additional $250 just weeks before Election Day and warning a Republican Legislature would work to reverse the state’s strict gun control laws or enact restrictions to abortion.

Moriarty did not return requests for an interview.

The race is further complicated by Jersey Freedom, an independent expenditure group that has dinged Del Borrello and boosted independent candidates Maureen Dukes Penrose and Giuseppe Constanzo, who is running for Senate.

Republicans charge Jersey Freedom is backed by South Jersey’s Democratic establishment that is encouraging support for independent candidates in a bid to siphon off Republican votes. It’s not clear whether the lawsuit Del Borrello and the state GOP filed in response will be resolved by Election Day, and it remains to be seen how the dispute will affect voters at the ballot box.

“It’s unclear whether the general electorate understands these allegations and what’s happening to the point where they would support these conservative candidates or whether there would be a countermobilization and they would get upset with it and not support certain candidates,” Dworkin said.

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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.