On June 8th, New Jersey voters will go to the polls to vote in this year’s primary election. While most of the attention thus far has been focused on the competitive contests that will occur in November, there are still fascinating primary matchups worth discussing. Most of these contests will be fought and won according to the party line, but there is always a small chance of usurpation. This article is a summary of what I discussed with my co-contributor Ethan Chen on Saturday’s stream, which you can watch here. All told, we will be covering ten primaries.
Governor – Republican Primary
The Republican frontrunner, former assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, is expected to easily secure his party’s nomination for governor this Tuesday. His most credible opponent, former NJ GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt, dropped out at the beginning of the primary campaign, leaving only perennial candidate Hirsh Singh and pastor Phil Rizzo.
Ciattarelli, who first ran for Governor back in 2017, has now received all of the possible Republican county line endorsements. With the party regulars backing Ciattarelli, Singh and Rizzo have struggled to stake out a formidable electoral foothold. Because of the strong relationship between county line endorsements and successful county victories, as well as Ciattarelli’s advantage in the fundraising and advertising campaigns, we expect him to win by a landslide margin.
We currently consider the Gubernatorial race as Likely Democratic. If current expectations hold, Governor Phil Murphy stands a good chance of becoming the first sitting Democratic Governor in 44 years to successfully win a second term.
The 21st district is notable in New Jersey politics because it is the home of three key members of the Republican legislative leadership; those members are Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, and Assembly Minority Whip Nancy Munoz. A strongly Democratic seat at the federal level, Republicans have remained successful here in down ballot races.
Senator Kean is retiring this year in order to devote his full attention to his rematch bid against 7th district Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski next year. As a result, Bramnick announced that he would be leaving the Assembly to launch a bid for the Senate. This year’s Republican line constitutes Munoz and New Providence councilwoman Michelle Matsikoudis. Fellow Republican Jennifer Makar is running off of the line.
The 21st is composed of portions of Somerset, Morris, and Union counties, of which the Union county portion is the most electorally-significant. We currently rate the Assembly race here as Leans Republican.
Things got interesting in the 39th district earlier this year when long-time Republican Senator Gerald Cardinale passed away at the age of 86. His death pitted Assembly colleagues Holly Schepisi and Bob Auth against each other in a party vote to determine which would succeed Cardinale as a temporary Senate appointee. In a close vote, Schepisi was chosen to fill the Senate vacancy. While Auth ultimately ruled out challenging Schepisi for the seat in the primary, the relationship between them still appears to be quite rocky.
The Republican line in the district is unified behind Auth and new Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio. Nonetheless, Schepisi has endorsed her own slate of Assembly candidates in Saddle River Councilman John Azzariti and former Saddle River Republican Municipal Chairman Jon Kurpis. While it is traditionally difficult to overcome the party line, Azzariti and Kurpis have fundraised prolifically, surpassing both incumbents. We currently expect Auth and DeFuccio to prevail, upholding the near-impeccable record of line endorsements in the Garden State, but promising fundraising numbers from the challengers are enough to merit keeping an eye on the potential outcomes of this race.
The 39th is made up of Bergen and Passaic counties. As of now, we rate this district as Likely Republican.
In the 13th district, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso has recently found herself in hot water. After a falling out with Sheriff Shaun Golden, the Leader of the Monmouth Republicans, the organization opted to give its line to Holmdel Board of Education President Vicky Flynn instead. Flynn is accompanied on the line by DiMaso’s colleague Assemblyman Gerard Scharfenberger. DiMaso is continuing her re-election bid off of the line, greatly reducing her chances of surviving the primary and making it to the November ballot. The real question here is whether or not sheer incumbency advantage can outweigh an important local party endorsement in the minds of the voters.
We currently consider this Monmouth County-based district to be Safe Republican.
Out of all of the competitive primaries in safe districts this year, the raucous contest in the 26th might be the most interesting. Composed almost wholly of Morris County, and to a lesser extent Passaic and Essex Counties, the 26th continues to be reliably Republican. Notably, the seat’s heavy reliance on Morris County has proven to be a burden on Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, who lost the Morris County organization’s endorsement earlier this year. Morris County Republicans instead decided to give their new line to fellow Assemblyperson Jay Webber and newcomer Christian Barranco.
While DeCroce maintains the line in the Essex and Passaic portions of the district, their relative electoral insignificance could jeopardize her primary chances. Nonetheless, DeCroce has kept pace with Webber and Barranco in fundraising and recently said that her campaign knocked on over 20,000 doors according to Nikita Biryukov at the New Jersey Globe. On top of that, DeCroce has built up an incumbency advantage, having served in the Assembly since 2012, and lives in Parsippany, located in Morris County.
Despite the fact that DeCroce clearly does not intend to go down without a fight, we are still of the opinion that she currently has a higher electoral chance of going down than she does of hanging on. While her situation may seem similar to that of Serena DiMaso in the 13th, it is important to note that DeCroce, unlike DiMaso, still has the line in part of her district.
While the seat is more competitive than the 13th, it has still been a reliable hold for the GOP in recent years. As such, we consider it Safe Republican.
The primary campaign to determine the candidate in the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Chris Brown in this Biden district has recently gone under the radar, but it is certainly not worth ignoring. Given the partisan leanings of the seat and the strength of presumptive Democratic nominee Vincent Mazzeo, a current Assemblyman, local Republicans recognize the importance of nominating the strongest possible candidate.
Acting on this desire, Atlantic County Republicans endorsed former Assemblyman Vince Polistina over the more controversial Seth Grossman. Polistina has also dominated his challenger in fundraising, raising about nine times more according to recent analysis by Ethan Chen. One of the few benefits Grossman has is an endorsement from the NRA, an important development in a Republican contest in South Jersey, where the electorate could be significantly more conservative in the primary than in the general election.
Composed entirely of Atlantic County, we rate the Senate contest in the 2nd as a Tossup, but a potential Grossman primary victory would likely put the seat out of reach for Republicans in a competitive general election campaign. Regardless, we believe that it is more likely than not that the line will hold up, allowing Polistina to defeat Grossman on Tuesday.
Senator Kip Bateman has had the honor of being the only Republican to represent a legislative district that Joe Biden won by more than 20 points last year – 21.8 to be exact. The seat in its current iteration has had Democratic tendencies at the federal level for quite some time, and is notable for including the Democratic bastion of Princeton. The 16th is also represented by two Democrats in the Assembly, one of whom is now running for the Senate.
Given all of these Democratic predispositions, it is amazing, even by New Jersey’s strong standard of down ballot Republican overperformance, that Bateman has been electorally successful here. His narrow 2017 re-election, coupled with his realization that his district’s continuing tread leftward would likely make his attenuated position untenable, likely influenced his decision to retire this cycle.
An open Democratic seat like this instantly became low-hanging fruit for Democrats following Bateman’s determination. Both Assemblymen showed interest in running, but Andrew Zwicker’s bid was the only one to come to fruition. Since his declaration, Zwicker has been fundraising efficiently and successfully. We now expect him to win in November, making this seat the only projected flip in our race ratings.
Nevertheless, the Republicans are still seeking to hold the 16th. Two former Congressmen, Mike Pappas and Dick Zimmer, announced their primary campaigns, but only Pappas remains as of late. Pappas has the Republican line, but still faces opposition from Jeffrey Grant. We expect Pappas to win the primary, but we don’t think his short-lived Congressional service from over two decades ago will help him against an incumbent Assemblyman who is far outraising him in a district becoming consistently more favorable for the Democrats.
This Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex district is currently rated as Likely Democratic.
Like the 16th, but to a slightly lesser extent, the 21st has become heavily Democratic at the federal level. With Kean Jr. retiring from his Senate seat to make another bid for Congress, Republicans have given the line to Assemblyman Jon Bramnick. Bramnick is respected throughout the district and is expected to keep the race tight. His Democratic opponent is Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello, the most credible Democratic nominee for the seat in recent memory.
We expect Signorello to defeat his challenger Ed Donnelly in the Democratic primary. This Senate seat is currently one of three Senate seats that we consider to be a Tossup.
Long-time Democratic Senator Loretta Weinberg drew significant attention after announcing her retirement earlier this year. The Bergen County based 37th district is now the scene of a competitive primary to determine the nominee for this Safe Democratic district. The two primary contestants are Assemblypeople Gordon Johnson and Valerie Huttle, both of whom have served in the legislature for extended periods of time.
The establishment-backed Johnson successfully won the Bergen Democratic line earlier this year, giving him a significant advantage over Huttle. This primary is yet another example of a race that will test the strength of the party line. The 37th district is also very racially diverse, which might benefit Johnson if he can secure the combined African American and Hispanic Democratic primary vote.
We expect Johnson to win the primary.
Another exciting primary challenge is brewing in the Union County-based 20th district. A Safe Democratic seat like the 37th, the district is held by Joe Cryan. Cryan is being challenged to his left by controversial Assemblyman Jamel Holley who is running off of the organization line. Like the 37th, the 20th is also racially diverse, but it is currently unclear how that will directly impact the contest.
Like most of the other districts on our list, we expect Cryan to win, thereby upholding the king-maker status of organization lines in the Garden State.