While the New Jersey legislative elections haven’t received much attention outside the local political sphere, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of content in the books. The last stand of the South Jersey Democratic machine, the future of potential Gubernatorial candidates, and the direction of the last two years of the Murphy administration are just some of the subplots of this election. Turnout is expected to be low again, but will likely exceed both 2015 and 2019, thanks to increasing voter participation during both the Trump and Biden presidencies and the expansion of the advance vote.
Democrats are the clear favorites to win both chambers, with Solid Democratic ratings assigned to both. But there are 13 districts where we have identified potentially competitive races in the New Jersey legislature.
New Jersey’s 2nd legislative district has a long history as a battleground seat, characterized by an extended 15-year period between 2006 and 2021 where no party was able to claim all three legislative seats. But Jack Ciattarelli’s strong performance in Atlantic County finally swept in unified legislative representation under the Republican banner.
Interim Senator Vince Polistina (R) was the only Republican ‘incumbent’ on the ticket in 2021 but he was the weakest performer, likely due to the fortitude of his opponent, four-term Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D). Polistina faces a similar dynamic this time (although he is a “real” incumbent now) as Democrats have put their strongest candidate up front with Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick (D) running for the Senate seat. The biggest issue in this race was the offshore wind development on the Jersey Shore, but that issue was resolved a week before the election after Orsted (the Norwegian wind company spearheading the project) decided to pull out. Much of the attention now falls on a “dark money group” promoting Libertarian candidate Shawn Peck’s campaign with the intention of drawing conservative-leaning voters away from Polistina. Peck, for his part, was angered by these tactics and dropped out to endorse Polistina, but his name will still appear on the ballot, as he dropped out too late.
The Assembly races, where Republican incumbents Claire Swift and Don Guardian are running for reelection against Democratic challengers Alphonso Harrell and Elizabeth Bender, are of lower consequence but should run pretty close to the Senate race.
Joe Biden won LD-02 with 55.2% of the vote compared to Donald Trump’s paltry 43.6%, but the Presidential margin isn’t exactly indicative of off-year legislative success where Democratic turnout in their strongholds of Atlantic City and Pleasantville is off a cliff and into oblivion. Ciattarelli won the district with 53.0% over Murphy’s 46.4% in 2021, and that margin likely offers a better perspective of what this district will look like. The fundraising data and the general consensus among state political observers would also suggest that the GOP is headed for another victory in this closely divided district. While this district has been at the forefront of New Jersey electoral politics for some time, it seems like Republicans have taken the initiative—for now—and will control it for two more years.
CNalysis LD-02 Rating: Leans Republican
The story of the truck driver unseating the Senate President is well-known in New Jersey politics. However, times have changed, and “Ed the Trucker” now finds himself at the center of a spirited revenge campaign launched by South Jersey Democrats, who are understandably furious that their power base in Trenton was wiped out by some dude they’ve never heard of before.
Former Assemblyman John Burzichelli leads the crusade, and South Jersey Democrats have been relentless, outspending Durr by Herculean margins on the airwaves (again) and hammering away on his old comments about abortion from his truck driving era (the moral of this story is that every politician should take care of their online business and comments before they run for higher office).
The partisan lean of this district heavily favors Durr: Jack Ciattarelli won this district by 15.9% and Trump by 2.7%, suggesting that a Generic Republican should win this district comfortably (and according to some of the internal polling that I’ve gathered, that seems to be the case). But Durr is anything but a Generic Republican, and the Democratic campaign against him is led by a man who used to win this district by double digits. Both Democrats and Republicans are coming out in big numbers in the early vote relative to 2021, which points to this year as one with relatively high turnout in what is going to be a low turnout year.
Democratic hopes of winning back this district lie in Gloucester County, where they still have a strong political operation. Salem and Cumberland are the proposed linchpins of Durr’s base, and Democrats’ lack of a competent county party operation in those two counties. This means that they will probably underperform Joe Biden’s margins in areas that will comprise 30-35% of the vote. Overall, it’s still an easier path to victory for Durr, but the Democratic challenge is serious. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Durr went down to defeat on election night.
With all the energy sucked into the Senate race, the Assembly races have received little attention, which is probably good news for incumbent Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R) and Hopewell Township Committeeman Tom Tedesco (R), given the district’s partisan leanings. Gloucester County Commissioner Heather Simmons (D) and nonprofit executive Dave Bailey (D) are no slouches and will keep the race close, however.
CNalysis LD-03 Rating: Tilt Republican
Camden Republicans were popping champagne in 2022 after redistricting shifted the 4th district right by 8% and gave them a chance to place the finishing blow into the Camden Democratic machine that dominated South Jersey politics for years. That celebration may have been premature, however, as the defending ticket led by nine-term Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D) has put up a stronger-than-expected campaign and isn’t about to go down without a fight.
For their part, Republicans had to go through a divisive primary but ultimately picked the right ticket for this race: Assembly nominee Matthew Walker, an executive board member of the influential International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, brought with him millions worth of outside funding to keep the GOP ticket competitive with the South Jersey Democratic machine’s endless funding and airwave bombing, substantially boosting the GOP’s odds of winning here.
The district voted for Joe Biden by 7% and Jack Ciattarelli by 5%, signifying the district’s status as a tossup and the campaign as surely has developed that way. Both sides have expressed optimism about their chances and both sides have gone to pretty low levels in this campaign, highlighted by controversial “phantom” Senate candidate Giuseppe Costanzo, a “Conservatives South Jersey Party” candidate that was almost certainly recruited by South Jersey Democrats to siphon off votes from Republican Senate nominee Chris Del Borrello.
The stakes are high: If Republicans win in both LD-03 and LD-04, it would signal the official demise of the once dominant South Jersey Democratic machine. Camden Democrats would lose Senatorial Courtesy, which means every single South Jersey Democratic Gubernatorial nominee would have to receive GOP permission to be appointed the administration, whether it be from State Sen. Mike Testa (R, LD-01), Polistina, Durr, or Del Borrello.
The data in this district points to an extremely close race. Democrats have an advantage in spending but aren’t dominant thanks to 825’s presence, and the district has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past three cycles. We’re tilting this race toward Democrats given their spending advantage and competent turnout machines in Camden and Gloucester Counties, but this is probably the closest district on the board this year.
CNalysis LD-04 Rating: Tilt Democratic
4.4% was the largest margin in the past three cycles of LD-08 legislative races, so in theory this district should host one of the premier scenes of political drama. Don’t get too excited, though– this year, LD-08 is home to the biggest candidate quality gap in a competitive open race. Former Burlington County Freeholder and 825 business representative Latham Tiver headlines the GOP Senate ticket, while placeholder candidate Gaye Burton is the Democratic nominee. Without party support, Burton became the nominee after an upset at a party convention in September, and she has never been able to gain the support of South Jersey Democrats, with Assembly candidates Andrea Katz and Anthony Angelozzi opting to run an independent campaign. With the Democratic Senate candidate effectively triaged, Tiver looks headed for victory on Tuesday.
The Assembly races should be closer since Katz and Angelozzi are running a real campaign, even though Republicans have a pair of incumbents. Michael Torrissi Jr. and Brandon Umba have approached their tenure in the state legislature as relative moderates, and that should help them win reelection in this Biden/Ciattarelli district. The fact that Democrats have given up on the top of the ballot doesn’t help them in an era where there is minimal ticket splitting in NJ legislative candidates, so even though Katz and Angelozzi are running decent campaigns, it is an uphill battle.
CNalysis LD-08 Rating: Leans Republican
A top political talent and widely regarded as a future Gubernatorial candidate, State Sen. Vin Gopal (D) first has to survive a challenge from Republican Steve Dnistrian (R) before he entertains his future. Gopal survived the 2021 red wave even as the Assembly Democratic incumbents lost. Knowing he’d be a top target two years later, Gopal essentially started his reelection campaign the day after he was declared the victor.
Gopal has focused heavily on local issues and abortion, and most observers agree that he’s running a smart campaign. But Dnistrian is trying to capitalize on issues such as Murphy’s COVID-era handling of the veteran nursing homes, local school board fights regarding transgender policy, and the offshore wind farms. Dnistrian is betting that Gopal’s esteemed positions of former Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman and current Senate Education Chairman will actually end up hurting Gopal in the end on the first two issues.
Given Gopal’s impressive victory in 2021, it’s hard to bet on him losing this year, although both sides acknowledge that this race will be close. I think Gopal has run the right race for this election and his electoral history has been impressive enough for him to be considered at least a moderate favorite. The inclusion of “Patriot Party” candidate Karen Zaletel should only increase his chances in the event of a close race.
The Assembly races should be much closer and like LD-03 and LD-04, there is a real chance of something of a split decision, where a party may only win one or two seats out of the three available. But Republican incumbents Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner have their work cut out for them. Eulner probably would’ve lost in the first place without a Green party candidate on the ballot in 2021, Gopal is likely to win at the top of the ticket, and the district was redistricted to be two points bluer. In the only projected pickup against an incumbent slate, I think Democratic nominees Luanne Peterpaul and Margie Donlon will restore full Democratic representation in LD-11.
CNalysis LD-11 Senate Rating: Likely Democratic
CNalysis LD-11 Assembly Rating: Tilt Democratic (FLIP)
While both sides of the aisle both privately and publicly say LD-16 is a close race, that would go against the district’s political trends in the past few years. After a decade of slowly picking up seats from the once-dominant Somerset GOP, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D) finally completed the sweep in 2021 after defeating former Congressman Mike Pappas (R) by 6%. Pappas is back for a rematch, but highly-reliable Democratic vote sinks in South Brunswick and Princeton make his pathway to victory extremely difficult. Democrats are going after Pappas’ Republican Revolution-era abortion stances in the hopes of motivating partisans to the polls in what should be a GOP-favoring low-turnout election.
The Assembly races are widely regarded to be closer, and Republicans believe they have a strong ticket here with Clinton Councilman Ross Traphagen and Grace Zhang, who has run some of the more memorable ads this cycle. Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D) is retiring and making way for Mitchelle Drulis to join the ticket with Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D), and both of whom should be favored to win due to strong Democratic partisanship. After all, Phil Murphy won LD-16 by 5 points in 2021 even though it was Ciattarelli’s home district.
CNalysis LD-16 Senate Rating: Very Likely Democratic
CNalysis LD-16 Assembly Rating: Likely Democratic
The bluest seat held by a Republican legislator, it is fitting that LD-21 is represented by State Sen. Jon Bramnick, the face of New Jersey liberal Republicans. The former State House minority leader and potential 2025 Gubernatorial candidate easily defeated Roselle Park mayor Joseph Signorello (D) for an open seat in 2021 and outran Ciattarelli by 9% in the process. He is expected to overperform big time yet again against Democrat Matt Marino, a perennial candidate who has received no party support or funding.
The district was moved in favor of the GOP in redistricting but is still a seat that Biden won by 17%, which means Republican Assemblywomen Nancy Muñoz and Michele Matsikoudis will have to overcome massive partisan headwinds to win without Bramnick on the ticket in 2025. But at least this year they should be on track for victory. 2021 Assembly candidate Elizabeth Graner (D) is the only candidate on the Democratic ticket who is running something resembling of a campaign, and her solo (and still relatively minimal) efforts will likely not be enough to oust a trio of powerful incumbents unless partisan trends at the top of the ballot catch up to these legislative races much quicker than expected.
CNalysis LD-21 Senate Rating: Leans Republican
CNalysis LD-21 Assembly Rating: Tilt Republican
There is late chatter on the deck that Democratic Senate candidate Christine Clarke might be up to something in this Biden +6 district, but Senate Minority Leader Tony Bucco (R) has simply won too many times and by margins too big for this chatter to be taken seriously. Clarke is focusing heavily on the abortion issue, which is probably the best bet in a suburban Morris district, but she has raised too little and there has been outside support too minimal to effectively spread her message. Barring a Durr-Sweeney level upset, Bucco is headed back to Trenton, and however unlikely the outcome, he’s hoping for a promotion to Senate President come 2024.
Clarke is really the only one on the Democratic ticket running anything resembling a campaign, even though Bucco is the strongest candidate on the ballot and is the hardest one to take down. The campaigns run by Democratic Assembly candidates Jonathan Torres and Diane Salvatore have been lackluster and there’s no reason to expect that Republican incumbents Aura Dunn and Christian Barranco are in any danger. They will both have to keep their eye out for challenges in 2025, 2027, and beyond, however, as this highly affluent seat continues to trend Democratic.
CNalysis LD-25 Rating: Likely Republican
Although LD-26 only voted for Trump by 1%, Republican incumbents Joseph Pennachio, Jay Webber, and Brian Bergen are headed for victory in a district Ciattarelli carried by 14%. This North Jersey seat is simply much redder in legislative races, and although Pennachio isn’t the greatest incumbent in the world in terms of electoral capability, he should still easily get the job done. Democratic Senate candidate Joan Waks has an interesting backstory as a former Assembly candidate but it’s going to be an uphill battle, with Pennachio outraising her significantly. I have never in my life heard of Democratic Assembly candidates John Von Achen or Walter Mielarczyk, and neither have donors, since they both have raised no money. Not really the recipe for a successful campaign.
CNalysis LD-26 Rating: Very Likely Republican
The most intriguing race in the state is in LD-30, where Republicans will easily win two of the three legislative races. The question mark is in the 3rd race, where Lakewood Rabbi Avi Schnall (D) is running to unseat Republican Assemblyman Ned Thomson. Schnall is hoping to take advantage of Orthodox bloc voting to win this heavily Republican seat. We’ve seen local races in Lakewood like this before in 2020 and 2021, and the result usually goes something like:
Strong R: 40%, Strong Dem: 30%, Weak R: 20%, Weak Dem: 10%
Assuming Schnall gets the usual 31-20 margin over Thomson in Lakewood, which isn’t a guarantee given how Thomson is an incumbent and no pushover, he then must make sure Lakewood turnout is off the charts and comprises at least at half of the district’s total vote when it usually only makes up about 35%. He also needs to cut into Thomson’s margins in the Monmouth County portion of the district, which doesn’t have bloc voting and will be voting for Republicans by a huge margin. In theory, if Lakewood makes up about 55% of the electorate and Schnall defeats Thomson 31-20, he needs to keep Thomson’s two-way margin in the rest of the district within 27% in order to have a chance (Ciattarelli won the Monmouth portion of the district by 31%).
The path is laid out for Schnall to win. On paper, it is an uphill battle and a lot of variables will have to be present for him to pull off the upset, but to be brutally honest, nobody in NJ Pol really knows how this experiment of an election will go.
CNalysis LD-30 Rating (Senate & Assembly Seat #1): Solid Republican
CNalysis LD-30 Assembly Seat #2 Rating: Tilt Republican
Based on the conversations that I’ve gathered, both Democrats and Republicans believe that a potential upset may be on the horizon in LD-38, where Murphy won by 5 points but heavy-hitting and right-trending Paramus township may deliver the GOP the margin they need. The 2021 race, where Democratic Senator Joseph Lagana survived a closer-than-expected challenge for his seat in 2021, is the root of this concern from Democrats and cautious optimism from Republicans. Democrats are so worried about this seat that they’re even airing TV ads in the expensive NYC media market. Republican nominee Micheline Attieh is an upgrade from two years ago (where Republicans bailed and didn’t fund their candidate), but she simply doesn’t have the resources to compete against this type of campaign. If a GOP win is truly in the cards as some claim, it’ll have to come from a much stronger than expected GOP wave. That’s possible, as we’ve recently seen uniquely poor Democratic performances in the NYC metropolitan area, but by far not the modal scenario.
Both parties think Republican Assembly candidate Barry Wilkes poses the strongest threat to the Democratic monopoly in the 38th. Wilkes does have the political connections and the money to compete, but incumbent Democrats Lisa Swain and Chris Tully still have to be the favorites given sheer partisanship. The GOP has entertained the 38th as a possible pickup a few times in the past decade but has always come up short. Unless something fundamentally changes, that will be the case again.
CNalysis LD-38 Rating: Very Likely Democratic
Republican State Sen. Holly Schepisi has been floated as a potential future Gubernatorial candidate, but she currently faces another reelection campaign to the State Senate. There’s no reason to believe she’s in any trouble, but the fact that Biden won the district by 6 points has to put her on alert. Perhaps this is not the year, but if she’s not careful, she may find herself in trouble back home before she launches a statewide campaign.
In 2021, Schepisi had something of a falling out with her Assembly mates, endorsing a challenging state to Assemblyman Robert Auth (R) and Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio (R). She failed, but following DeFuccio’s retirement this year, she was able to get an ally in Saddle River Councilman John Azzariti on the ballot. On the Democrats’ end, they’re running Jodi Murphy for Senate and Damon Englese and John Vitale for Assembly, but there’s nothing to suggest that they’re not just another set of sacrificial lambs put forth by the Bergen Democratic Party. At least for now anyway. Perhaps in the near future, Bergen Dems will treat this as a competitive race as top-of-the-ballot trends slowly start trickling down ballot.
CNalysis LD-39 Rating: Likely Republican
Much like LD-26, Biden +1 LD-40 simply isn’t blue enough to be considered competitive downballot, although it has the potential to become a top race down the line. State Senator Kristin Corrado (R) is one of the most impressive incumbents in terms of electoral overperformance, and while her strength may wane after taking in new territory from the redistricting process, her seemingly endless list of union support won’t account for nothing. Democratic Senate candidate Jennifer Ehrentraut made some noise earlier in the campaign but it seems to have fizzled out toward the end.
Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R) took the raw end of the deal during the redistricting process as Essex Republican Chairman/legislative commission co-chair Al Barlas (R) drew the district to include more Essex towns. This resulted in the necessity to put an Essex Republican on the ballot, and party leaders chose Barlas to replace Rooney (we love a bit of New Jersey corruption, don’t we). Barlas joins Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R) in a race against Democrats Jennifer Marrinan and Giovanna Irizarry, who have raised next to no money and will join the long list of defeated LD-40 Democratic candidates.
CNalysis LD-40 Rating: Very Likely Republican