With Georgia’s runoffs in the rear-view mirror, Elections Daily has officially moved on to the 2021 cycle. This year, we’ll be covering important statewide and legislative races in 2021 in both Virginia and New Jersey. You can find our Virginia ratings here, in an article written by Joe Szymanski.
When it comes to New Jersey, I’ve worked with Ethan Chen and Ben Kestenbaum to formalize our ratings for the Governorship and the competitive races for the legislature. We’ll be providing updates to our ratings every month to report on specific developments in each race we’re watching. In the mean time, we encourage you to keep reading to hear about the state of the Garden State’s races so far.
Statewide Race Ratings
Unlike Virginia, New Jersey doesn’t have elected row offices. This leaves all eyes on the state’s Governor’s race, which will decide which man gets to inherit the governor’s mansion and every power associated with it. Like a President, the Governor of New Jersey appoints his cabinet officers. This constitutional quirk makes the battle for the Governorship more impactful than it normally would be in other states.
New Jersey is safely Democratic at the federal level. A Republican hasn’t won the state in a Presidential race since George H. W. Bush in 1988, and the state hasn’t elected a Republican to the US Senate since Clifford Case in 1972. Despite the Republicans’ misfortune at the federal level, the path for Democrats has been much bumpier at the state level.
How bumpy you might ask? The last Democratic governor of the Garden State to win re-election to a second term was Brendan Byrne in 1977, 44 years ago. In that time, Republican Governors Tom Kean Sr, Christine Todd Whitman, and Chris Christie have all successfully sought and won second terms.
Besides the fact that New Jersey voters have always found Republican candidates more appealing in statewide races than in federal races, each losing Democratic governor largely fell victim to a problem they could not overcome:
- Democrat Jim Florio narrowly lost his 1993 re-election bid following major opposition to his tax policies.
- Jim McGreevey was forced to forgo his 2005 re-election bid and resign in scandal surrounding his relationship with Golan Cipel.
- Jon Corzine, who was defeated in 2009, was arguably an early victim of the anti-Democratic sentiment that swept the nation a year later.
With Murphy seemingly free from any glaring issues that could bring down his re-election campaign, the question remains: will he break the trend?
Governor – Likely Democratic
Our consensus ratings so far is Likely Democratic. While Murphy has clearly lost some of his favorability when compared against his record-breaking near-70% approval rating earlier this year, he remains popular in the state. Murphy’s positive campaign message could also resonate well with voters, especially if the political pressure surrounding COVID-19 begins to alleviate.
Murphy’s chances will also depend on his Republican opponent in November. There are currently four Republicans in the primary race. The main contenders are former New Jersey GOP Chair Doug Steinhardt and Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.
Our rating here is Likely Ciattarelli. In a state where electoral success relies so heavily on the support of the county party committees, Steinhardt’s failure to secure a significant number of line endorsements leads us to view him as an underdog. Given Steinhardt’s “attack dog” record, it’s hard to see him being more potable to the moderate unaffiliated voters a Republican needs to win the Governorship here than Ciattarelli.
Regardless of the Republican nominee, the race will be an uphill battle for state Republicans.
State Senate Ratings
We rate the State Senate chamber as Safe Democratic. Out of the 40 seats in the upper chamber, eight are competitive. Of the remaining 32 safe seats, 22 are Safe Democratic with 10 rated Safe Republican.
- LD-2 – Brown – (Leans R): Republican Senator Chris Brown comfortably defeated incumbent Democrat Colin Bell in 2017. Despite voting for Biden by 11 points in November, we believe that this Atlantic County-based seat remains favorable for Brown, especially in a good Republican environment. A Brown victory could also provide the coattails crucial to flipping both Democratic-held Assembly seats in the 2nd district.
- LD-8 – Addiego – (Leans D): Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Dawn Marie Addiego switched parties in 2019 in an effort to align with her evolving personal convictions. While her reasoning initially appeared electorally sound, her re-election chances are hardly assured. The 8th has two Republican Assemblypeople and is less Democratic at the federal level than other Republican held seats like the 1st. If Senator Addiego runs for re-election, she could face a difficult challenge from Republican Assemblyman Ryan Peters according to the NJ Globe.
- LD-16 – Bateman – (Leans D – Flip): The most Democratic seat held by a Republican in the legislature is the 16th, held by Republican Kip Bateman. Bateman narrowly won back in 2017, but it’s unclear if ticket splitting and a good Republican environment will be enough to save him in a seat that Biden won by 22 points. Bateman could face credible Democratic opposition in Assemblymen Zwicker and Freiman, both of whom are reportedly considering bids. The 16th is currently the only seat in either chamber that we rate as a flip.
- LD-21 – Kean – (Tossup): With Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean likely to make a second bid for the US House, the state of the 21st district race is unclear. The district is Democratic at the federal level but Republicans have strong ancestral support here in legislative races. If Kean ultimately retires, we can expect possible bids from Assemblypeople Bramnick or Munoz. Given Bramnick’s refusal to run for Governor, this scenario appears increasingly likely. Democrats have a credible candidate in Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello. This is currently our only Tossup Senate seat.
Other Possibly Competitive Seats
- LD-3 – Sweeney – (Likely D): Senate President Steve Sweeney has always been able to win re-election easily, even as his seat has moved toward the right. Given his name recognition and successful electoral record, we consider him a strong favorite. Yet, as the only Democrat in a competitive race from a Trump seat, we won’t put a close race out of the question, especially if the environment favors the GOP.
- LD-11 – Gopal – (Likely D): Vin Gopal, one of the Senate’s younger rising stars, won his seat in 2017, ousting Republican incumbent Jennifer Beck. The leftward-trending 11th voted for Biden by double-digits, but a competitive race is possible if Republican momentum turns into a watershed.
- LD-25 – Bucco Jr – (Likely R): Tony Bucco Jr won his father’s old seat in a 2020 Special Election, utilizing ticket splitting to cruise to an eight-point victory even as Joe Biden won the 25th by nine. Democrat Rupande Mehta is running again, but it’s unlikely Bucco will face a hotly contested race in 2021 given his strong victory two months ago.
- LD-39 – Cardinale – (Likely R): Long-time Republican Senator Gerald Cardinale has been able to secure his seat for decades, even as its moved toward the Democrats. If he chooses to run for re-election he will start as a strong favorite. The best chance of having a close race in the 39th will come with a Republican retirement. Given Cardinale is 86 years old, a retirement is definitely in the cards.
State Assembly Ratings
We rate the State Assembly chamber as Safe Democratic. The Assembly is composed of the same 40 districts as the Senate, but each district elects two members each. Out of the 80 members up for election, 18 are in competitive races. 42 Democrats and 20 Republicans are in Safe races. The 18 members in competitive races comprise nine different districts.
- LD-8 – Stanfield & Peters – (Leans R): Despite having a Democratic Senator, the 8th district has two Republican Assemblypeople, both of whom won in 2019. The junior member, Jean Stanfield is likely to run for re-election. The senior member, Ryan Peters, is reportedly considering a bid for Senate. Delegation splitting in the Assembly has become rather uncommon, leading us to consider both seats Leans Republican. Both Assembly seats have not been on the ballot with an incumbent Democratic Senator though, so the impact of coattails remains uncertain.
- LD-21 – Bramnick & Munoz – (Leans R): We currently consider the 21st to be Leans Republican. While it’s possible that either Bramnick or Munoz may retire to run for the Senate seat, we don’t believe it will damage Republican chances. Summit County GOP Chairman Steve Spurr could prove to be a credible replacement candidate, if one of the Republican slots opens up. And he has already showed interest in running.
- LD-25 – Dunn & Bergen – (Leans R): Republicans have held the 25th district repeatedly, withstanding Democratic the growth of Democratic support in Morris and Somerset counties. Republican Aura Dunn won her seat in the Assembly in a 2020 special election by about five points, a decided underperformance when compared against Tony Bucco Jr. We currently consider both Dunn and Bergen narrow favorites to win re-election, with Bucco Jr’s coattails assisting them.
- LD-3 – Burzichelli & Taliaferro – (Leans D): In the 3rd district, Democrats Burzichelli and Taliaferro are expected to face close re-election battles. The seat did break for Trump last November, though, and Sweeney being at the top of ticket may be the only saving grace for both Democrats if the environment sours.
- LD-11 – Downey & Houghtaling – (Leans D): Much like the 3rd district, the 11th could see a close Assembly contest. Downey and Houghtaling will be relying on a strong performance by Senator Gopal to win re-election. We still consider both Democrats early favorites for re-election.
- LD-2 – Mazzeo & Armato – (Tossup): Our only Tossup district at the Assembly is the 2nd, which leans Democratic at the federal level. Unlike the 3rd and 11th, where Democratic Assemblypeople have help from strong Democratic Senators, the Democrats in the 2nd have to outrun Republican Senator Chris Brown, who remains an early favorite.
Other Possibly Competitive Seats
- LD-16 – Zwicker & Freiman – (Likely D): The 16th should be an easy hold for Assembly Democrats, even if both incumbents retire to run for Senate. Given how Democratic the seat has become, it is unlikely Republicans will be able to mount a credible challenge here. Any eventual Democratic nominees here will almost certainly outrun Senator Bateman’s eventual challenger.
- LD-38 – Swain & Tully – (Likely D): Democrats Swain and Tully are considered strong favorites in the 38th, a seat that Biden carried easily two months ago. There is no competitive Senate race in the 38th, and we expect Republicans to focus more closely on other, more winnable races.
- LD-39 – Schepisi & Auth – (Likely R): The 39th has trended toward the Democrats and was narrowly won by Biden in November. Despite this, Republicans remain strong favorites here on both the Senate and Assembly levels. We will have to watch the 39th closely over the next few months, with candidate recruitment playing a large role in how competitive the race will become.