TRENTON - A record number of Republican women are running for state office this year, including one who will face off against the highest-ranking Democrat in the state, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).
A total of 75 women filed for state candidacy this year, including 29 Republican Assembly candidates and nine Republican Senate candidates, the highest percentage of women the GOP has ever put up, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
Among the Democratic candidates, 26 women are running for Assembly and 11 women are running for Senate this year, numbers they've either matched or bested in previous elections, according to the center's data.
"Our party leadership has done a wonderful job recruiting diverse and highly qualified women who are willing to take up the mantle of public service in these key legislative districts," said Ben Sparks, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Republican Committee.
Republican women will compete in at least two districts that political observers say will be closely watched this year.
Niki Trunk, a Salem County lawyer, will run against Sweeney in the Third Legislative District. If Trunk wins, she would be the first female senator to represent the South Jersey district, which includes Salem and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester Counties.
At the Shore, Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt, a Cape May County resident who runs a communications firm, will face Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who has served the First Legislative District since 2008. Adelizzi-Schmidt is the first Republican woman to run for Senate in the district, which includes Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland Counties.
Democratic strategists say the GOP is simply trying to shed its "old white guy club" image, which alienated women voters in the presidential election. Plus, Republican Gov. Christie is facing Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), in the race for governor.
"When Gov. Christie has struggled [with polls] during the course of his tenure, it's usually when there's a big gender gap with women," said Michael Muller, a consultant with the New Jersey State Democratic Committee.
Republicans hope Christie's popularity and fund-raising ability will help him win a landslide victory, tilting some of the closer races in the GOP's favor. Democrats control both chambers of the Statehouse.
Political observers say that's possible, but unlikely.
"The Republican Party can be competitive anywhere if they spend enough money, and the governor may well be able to raise that kind of cash for the party this year," said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "However, the power of incumbency and Democratic-leaning districts mean that the governor has to win by an overwhelming amount in order to make it more likely that we'll see a coattail effect."
As for whether running women candidates will attract more women voters, probably not, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
"Running women candidates is a good thing, and it matters, but it's not what drives the women's vote," she said. "The Republican Party has a problem with women voters and . . . the gender gap falls along partisan lines not because of the gender of the candidate but because of policy issues."