This year’s legislative races among most expensive in New Jersey history

Independent spending remains high despite changes to campaign finance law

By: - December 4, 2023 7:00 am

Heightened contribution limits enacted earlier this year helped boost candidate fundraising to slightly above historical levels. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Loosened campaign finance limits helped make this year’s elections some of the most expensive in recent history, including a race in Monmouth County that is one of the costliest ever.

But the changes do not appear to have curbed independent spending, which was higher in this year’s contests than in election cycles in the last half-dozen years. Supporters of higher donation limits had argued that they would limit the influence of independent political groups.

Overall, candidates raised $55.9 million for this year’s general election, a total that is — after adjustments for inflation — about half a million more than the $44.1 million raised in 2017, though it falls short of fundraising totals seen in 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2013, according to preliminary data compiled by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Still, this year’s contests were the fifth-costliest in state history, and fundraising totals will likely increase with the release of additional campaign finance reports due in January and April, the election law commission said.

Statewide, Democratic candidates, who typically hold broad cash leads in New Jersey races, spent nearly two-and-a-half times as much as their Republican opponents. The cash advantage helped Democrats flip six Assembly seats from GOP control.

Meanwhile, political action committees and nonprofits that face laxer disclosure requirements than candidates and political parties reported spending a combined $23 million on this year’s races, the commission said.

That figure is the highest since 2017, when independent groups put nearly $26.6 million — or roughly $33.6 million in today’s dollars — into legislative contests and that year’s gubernatorial race. Legislators topped this year’s ballots, and such elections typically see smaller overall investment from independent expenditure groups.

Democrats’ advantage on outside spending was even wider than seen in spending by their campaigns. Independent spending groups aligned with Democrats put $18.1 million into the election, compared to $4.6 million for Republicans. Those figures do not include $214,696 spent by a Democrat-aligned PAC to boost independent spoilers in the 2nd and 4th legislative districts.

The nearly $10 million candidates and outside groups spent on races in the 11th District, where Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) retained his Senate seat and his running mates flipped two Assembly seats the party lost in 2021, makes it the third-most expensive contest in state history after adjustments for inflation.

It’s possible future campaign finance reports will push the total past the $10.3 million in inflation-adjusted dollars spent in the 4th District’s 2003 race, which launched the legislative career of Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester). Madden did not seek reelection this year after 20 years in the Senate.

But the state’s most expensive race — then-Senate President Steve Sweeney’s 2017 reelection bid — remains far out of reach. That race saw $24.1 million in spending, or about $29.4 million after adjustments to inflation, as the New Jersey Education Association spent heavily in an attempt to oust the Democratic leader over health benefit reforms the union opposed.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

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.

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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR