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Top New Jersey races to watch in the 2019 election

Turnout is expected to be low, common for an off-year election without a governor’s race and with Assembly races at the top of the ballot.

The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton as seen from across the Delaware River in Morrisville, Pa.
The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton as seen from across the Delaware River in Morrisville, Pa.Read moreCharles Rex Arbogast / AP File

New Jersey residents will go to the polls Tuesday in a general election that has all 80 Assembly seats up for grabs, as well as one state Senate seat.

Turnout is expected to be low, common for an off-year election without a governor’s race and with Assembly races at the top of the ballot. Democrats aren’t seen as being at risk of losing their majority in the Assembly, and only a few districts are competitive. But there are still a few things worth watching.

New Jersey’s new law to make voting by mail easier has led to a surge in mail-in ballots cast compared with previous elections. The state’s Democratic candidates have far out-raised Republicans in money, raking in $11 million statewide, compared with $3 million for the GOP, according to campaign finance reports. And with local elections increasingly influenced by national politics, President Donald Trump looms large in the political conversation.

“People’s opinion of the president is baked into the electorate,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

In the Philadelphia area, a few South Jersey races have become battlegrounds for hot-button national issues like immigration and gun rights, along with traditional statewide issues such as taxes.

Here are the South Jersey races we’re watching closely:

New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District: Bob Andrzejczak vs. Mike Testa for Senate

New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District covers Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland Counties. It’s also the only district in the state with a Senate seat at stake Tuesday in a special election (the remaining 39 are up for election in 2021).

Democratic State Sen. Bob Andrzejczak is running to keep the seat for a full term after filling a vacancy caused by Jeff Van Drew’s heading to Congress earlier this year. He is facing off against Republican candidate Mike Testa, a lawyer from Vineland.

In the district’s Assembly races, Democratic Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matthew Milam are going up against Republican Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen and Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan, respectively.

New Jersey’s 1st District leans conservative and voted handily for Trump in 2016. Democrats have made gains recently. And Van Drew — the only Democratic member of the House from the Philadelphia region, and the only one in New Jersey, who has remained opposed to the impeachment inquiry of Trump — is a big presence in the district.

The former state senator built a reputation as a conservative Democrat able to work across party lines. Democrats running Tuesday are attaching themselves to his brand, billing themselves as the “Van Drew Team.”

“It’s interesting to see if the Van Drew magic is transferable,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, which is in the district.

In the Senate race, Testa is trying to paint Andrzejczak as a “radical progressive” tied to Gov. Phil Murphy. Forty percent of district voters think Murphy is doing a poor job, according to a recent Stockton poll.

Andrzejczak has highlighted his independence, breaking with Murphy on key local issues like the governor’s decision to halt funding for improvements to the Wildwood boardwalk. Andrzejczak was leading Testa in the Senate race by 53% to 39%, according to the same Stockton poll.

Immigration has also taken center stage, with 52% of voters viewing it as an extremely important issue, according to the Stockton survey. Democrats have come out against state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s “Sanctuary Directive” that prohibits local and state law enforcement agencies from coordinating with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The district’s Assembly races drew more attention after a campaign mailer sent out by General Majority PAC, which is linked to South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, included a picture of McClellan that Republicans say was reportedly darkened and racist.

McClellan, who is black, accused Democrats of attacking him because he’s a minority who “disagrees with their narrative.” Democrats said they’re not behind the mailer and called it a distraction from issues like tax hikes in Ocean City, for which McClellan voted.

"This is a disproven and desperate political charge from candidates who would prefer the public be distracted from the fact that they have nothing of value to run on,” said Joe Corrigan, spokesperson for General Majority PAC.

Earlier this week, Andrzejczak made headlines because he wouldn’t rule out voting for Trump in 2020, according to an interview with the New Jersey Globe. His campaign declined to comment.

Democrats have out-raised Republicans in the 1st Legislative District. As of Oct. 17, Andrzejczak, Land, and Milam had jointly raised more $430,000, compared with the $238,000 jointly raised by their Republican competitors, according to campaign finance records.

New Jersey’s 8th Legislative District

New Jersey’s 8th Legislative District covers most of Burlington County and parts of Atlantic and Camden Counties.

Democrats are fielding two political newcomers for Assembly: Gina LaPlaca, a former adviser to the New Jersey Democratic Assembly caucus from Lumberton, and Mark Natale, an employment lawyer from Marlton. They are facing off against Republican Assemblyman Ryan Peters and former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield, respectively.

The 8th Legislative District used to be solidly Republican but has become more of a toss-up. Republicans haven’t fared well here in the Trump era. Former U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur lost to Democrat Andy Kim in last year’s congressional race by about 3,900 votes.

In early 2019, Dawn Marie Addiego, the district’s state senator, switched party affiliations from Republican to Democratic. Former Assemblyman Joe Horwath considered switching parties, too, which cost him the support of the Burlington County GOP and helped lead to his defeat in the June primary.

“This is going to come down to the wire,” said Dworkin.

Guns have been a major issue, with Democrats hammering Stanfield over her 93% approval rating from the National Rifle Association and pushing her to release her answers to an NRA questionnaire, which includes questions about whether she would support weakening New Jersey’s restrictive gun laws.

“The NRA knows more about how Jean Stanfield will vote in the Assembly than actual voters, ” said Mickey Quinn, a campaign spokesperson for LaPlaca and Natale. “Stanfield is hiding because she is terrified that she has been exposed for selling out 8th District residents for a blood-money endorsement."

Stanfield’s campaign says the former sheriff “has spent her whole career taking illegal guns off the street."

Republicans are focused on issues like education, touting efforts by Peters to reform school funding so it is more equitably distributed across the state. The political action committee for the New Jersey teachers’ union is endorsing the Republican candidates in the 8th.

“Money is being taken away from South Jersey schools and [Democrats] aren’t going to be able to stand up to their party bosses, saying we need to take this money back,” said Angelo Lamberto, the campaign manager for Peters and Stanfield.

Democrats have also out-raised Republicans in this district. LaPlaca and Natale had jointly raised more than $290,000 as of Oct. 17, compared to the $192,000 raised by Peters and Stanfield, according to campaign finance records.

There hasn’t been public polling in the district, but political watchers expect a close race.