While Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, Virginia’s legislative elections, and Wisconsin’s consequential Supreme Court election are the topline election battlegrounds in 2023, important legislative races will be taking place in New Jersey, Mississippi, and Louisiana, with the Garden State having the most competitive chambers out of this uncompetitive bunch. A strong 2021 showing by Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli powered the NJ GOP to their strongest position in a decade, with 16 out of 40 seats in the Senate (they currently hold 15 of those seats after the party switch of Senator Sam Thompson) and 34 out of 80 seats in the Assembly. Both parties are taking this year’s elections seriously, despite the perception of New Jersey as a safely Democratic state.
While things are likely to change by November, the initial outlook here in New Jersey, as one would expect, looks pretty good for Democrats. With no statewide race headlining the ballot, candidate quality and the ability for state parties and candidates to turn out their voters will take on a more important role than they did in 2021. The State Senate is the less competitive of the two chambers, earning a chamber-wide rating of Safe Democratic. With the exception of the 14th, which is barely competitive, battleground Senate Democrats consistently outran their Assembly counterparts in the 2021 legislative races, giving them more of a buffer in case of a surprising Republican surge on election night. The State Assembly is slightly less safe for Team Blue, but they’re still in a very strong position to start. Republicans would have to sweep all but two of the non-safe Democratic seats to be able to break the Democratic majority. The initial rating for this chamber is Likely Democratic.
The Core Four Battlegrounds (LDs 2, 4, 8, 11):
LD-02 (Biden +11.6, Ciattarelli +6.6): Republican Senator Vincent Polistina will likely be the first Senator to seek reelection since Jim Whelan (D) in 2013. The Atlantic-based district has been comfortably Democratic at the federal level, voting for both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by double digits, but the personal popularity of then-Assemblyman Chris Brown (R) allowed the GOP to comfortably win the open seat in 2017 despite Murphy carrying the district by 17 points on the same ballot. Roles were reversed in 2021, with Brown’s retirement and Democrats fielding a popular Assemblyman in Vince Mazzeo (D), but Mazzeo was unable to replicate Brown’s feat and fell short amid Murphy’s stunningly large defeat in this district. Democrats have somewhat of a candidate recruitment problem here, with the legislative Democratic bench depleted in the 2021 elections and Atlantic Democrats having been reduced to two out of seven elected county commissioner seats. It is unclear whether Commissioners Ernest Coursey or Karen Fitzpatrick want to make a bid for the legislature. Polistina, now an elected incumbent, starts off favored in this Biden +12 seat. Leans Republican.
Both Assembly Republicans outran Polistina in 2021 and should also be in a favorable position. Karen Fitzpatrick ran for a seat in 2021 and could do so again, but she seems more likely to run for Senate if she makes a 2nd legislative bid. Leans Republican (2 seats).
LD-04 (Biden +6.9, Ciattarelli +5.4): Thanks to redistricting, the 4th seems like the best pickup opportunity for state Republicans, especially if popular long-time incumbent Sen. Fred Madden (D) finally decides to retire. The Chairman of the New Jersey Senate Labor Committee has earned a reputation of being a moderate Democrat, and that has generated him considerable crossover support in his previous runs for office. His margin of victory in the old 4th was more than 6% greater than that of Gov. Murphy, which gives him a boost in a district that has gotten significantly redder in redistricting. Further encouraging for Madden (or any other Democratic candidate for that matter) is that Congressional Dems won the 4th by a collective 8.4% in 2022, thanks mostly to a strong showing by Congressman Donald Norcross. The South Jersey Democratic machine isn’t dead yet, and we’re are starting off this race at Leans Democratic with the baseline assumption that Madden runs for reelection.
Most expect Madden to retire, and he did have a very poor fundraising season last quarter. If that does come to fruition, this race would immediately be downgraded to a Tossup. Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D) is widely expected to be the Democratic frontrunner in the case of a Madden retirement. State Republicans have not yet selected their challenging slate for this district.
The Democratic Assembly ticket only outran Murphy by a combined 2.5% in 2021 and generally lacks the type of crossover support enjoyed by Madden. With the district becoming a Ciattarelli-won seat in redistricting, this will be one of two districts starting off without a clear favorite in the lower chamber. Toss-up (2 seats).
LD-08 (Biden +4.6, Ciattarelli +8.9): The retirement of Senator Jean Stanfield (R) opens up a competitive Senate seat in this Biden/Ciattarelli district. With the endorsements of both Assemblymen, former Burlington County freeholder Latham Tiver has emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. A business representative from an influential local union, Tiver has adequate connections and resources to be able to mount a credible campaign. Democrats have not set on a candidate, but they have plenty of options including Burlington County Commissioner Allison Eckel, Chesterfield Democratic Municipal Chair Andrea Katz, and perhaps even former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. This is a Biden-won seat, but Democrats haven’t held a legislative seat in the 8th since 1976. With Tiver being a credible nominee, Republicans will start with an edge in the Senate race. Leans Republican.
The Assembly races are more straightforward as both freshmen incumbents Michael Torrissi Jr. (R) and Brandon Umba (R) are expected to run for reelection. Torrissi outran both Umba and Stanfield in 2021, which sets him up in a slightly stronger position to start. Likely Republican.
Umba, on the other hand, underran both Torrissi and Stanfield and seems to be the weaker incumbent. If Democrats make a surprising breakthrough in the 8th district this year, it will either come here or in the Senate race. Leans Republican (1 seat).
LD-11 (Biden +13.3, Ciattarelli +2.3): The 11th is home to the only split delegation in the state. Senator Vin Gopal has been a rising star of the Monmouth Democratic Party and he’s often mentioned as a possible 2025 gubernatorial candidate. As Gov. Murphy and his two Assembly running mates were losing the district, Gopal won reelection by a solid 3.8% against GOP challenger Lori Annetta, demonstrating his popularity. Republicans were dealt a blow after two popular Monmouth County politicians, County Commissioner Tom Arnone and County Clerk Christine Hanlon, both declined to run. Former Omnicom Group COO Steve Dnistrian is now the nominal frontrunner for the GOP nomination over Sara Haleva. Gopal’s incumbency and personal brand should result in him being favored, but this will be one of the most hotly contested legislative races this year. Leans Democratic.
Republican Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner were not expected to win in 2021 but were carried to victory by Ciattarelli coattails as Democratic incumbents Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling lacked Gopal’s brand to carry them over the top. The Republican ticket won by a combined 0.8% that year but redistricting alone shifted the district left by 1%, giving Democrats a fantastic opportunity to reclaim these Assembly seats this year. Former Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling is back for a rematch but is the underdog in the primary to Ocean Township Councilwoman Margie Donlon and former Judge Luanne Peterpaul as they hold the county line, which in New Jersey gives you extremely high odds of advancing to the general election. The 11th was home to the closest contest in the state two years ago, and it is expected to be just as competitive this year. Tossup (2 seats).
GOP Path to Tied Chambers (LDs 16, 38):
LD-16 (Biden +20.8, Murphy +5): The 16th had been a Republican stronghold at the legislative level for decades and this is where Jack Ciattarelli represented before running for Governor. But cracks in Republican dominance started to form in 2015 when Democrat Andrew Zwicker ousted Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R) by 78 votes. Ciattarelli’s retirement in 2017 allowed Democrats to claim the other Assembly seat, and Senator Kip Bateman’s (R) retirement in 2021 opened up the Senate seat. In a show of how Democratic the seat has become, Murphy won Ciattarelli’s old seat by 6.3% in the gubernatorial race, and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D) defeated former US Rep. Michael Pappas (R) by a margin of 6.6% in the Senate race. While the GOP Assembly ticket did a few points better, the former GOP stronghold has clearly turned into a medium shade of blue. Pappas is back for a rematch this year, and although redistricting did turn this district redder by about a point, he faces a steep battle now that Zwicker is an incumbent and the general environment doesn’t seem to be as good for Republicans as in 2021. Likely Democratic.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D) was first elected in 2017 after the retirement of Ciattarelli, and while he typically underperforms Zwicker when they run on the same ticket, his incumbency and the district’s blue tilt make him a strong bet for reelection. Likely Democratic (1 seat).
Freshman Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D) is retiring, which means that one of the Assembly seats will be open. In 2021, Jaffer only received 25.7%, proving that the state GOP still has enough downballot strength to compete. Republicans have a set of candidates who can possibly play here, including Clinton Town Councilman Ross Traphagen and 2021 nominee Vincent Panico. Mitchelle Drulis, formerly the district director of Rep. Tom Malinowski, is the likely Democratic replacement for Jaffer. Redistricting has helped GOP odds, even if slightly, and an open seat makes things more competitive. Leans Democratic (1 seat).
LD-38 (Biden +14.2, Murphy +5): The 38th is a must-win for Republicans in their quest to break the Democratic majority in either chamber. Senator Joseph Lagana (D) now sees himself at the center of attention after receiving a lowered-than-expected 52.9% of the vote in 2021. Luckily for him, all top-tier Republican challengers on the bench passed on this race, leaving him with no obvious opponent after the Bergen County Republican convention. Republicans have until March 27th to find a candidate, but this is not a good start for their hopes of defeating Lagana. Likely Democratic.
Republicans do have an Assembly ticket, with former Glen Rock GOP Chairman Barry Wilkes and school district counselor Gail Horton. But Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D) matched Lagana’s performance in 2021 and seems like a hard incumbent to take down. Likely Democratic (1 seat).
Assemblyman Chris Tully, on the other hand, consistently underruns his ticket mates by a few hundred votes and seems to be in slightly more danger. It’s not a lot of danger at the moment, but his unconvincing 25.9% share of the vote in 2021 means a strong Republican night in the 38th would see him in hot water. Leans Democratic (1 seat).
North Jersey Democratic Opportunities (LDs 21, 25, 39):
LD-21 (Biden +17.4, Ciattarelli +0.3): Similar to the 16th, the 21st is a former Republican stronghold that now votes reliably for Democrats on the federal level. However, legislative GOP strength in the district remains as Senator Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz have maintained strong brands as moderates and remain well liked throughout the district. Bramnick was the GOP leader in the state Assembly for a decade before deciding to seek a promotion when then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R) retired to focus on his successful run for US Congress. Bramnick easily starved off a credible challenge from Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello III (D) in 2021 despite the district continuing to trend left at a relatively quick pace and voting for Gov. Murphy by 2% on the same ballot. Redistricting morphed the new 21st into a Ciattarelli-won district, even if barely, and that should only help Bramnick’s odds. Leans Republican.
Munoz served alongside Bramnick in the Assembly from 2009 to 2022 and is currently the Deputy Minority Leader. She enjoys similar crossover support as Bramnick and should also do very well on election night. And while freshman Republican Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis lacks the brand of her running mates, she should also be on solid footing. She was able to run pretty close to Munoz’s performance in 2021 and incumbency is now on her side. Leans Republican (2 seats).
LD-25 (Biden +6.4, Ciattarelli +8.4): In 2019, Anthony M. Bucco was appointed to the Senate seat following the death of his father. The elder Bucco served the district for 24 years and his popularity transcended to his son, who won the subsequent special election in 2020 and outran former President Trump’s showing in the district by 17 points. Despite technically only serving one full term, the younger Bucco is slated to become the next Senate GOP leader following the retirement of sitting Minority Leader Steve Oroho. While that may incentivize Democrats to target Bucco seriously, their likely candidate in this district is Christine Clarke, an environment activist and somewhat of a perennial candidate. Without a top-tier challenger, Bucco isn’t in immediate danger of losing reelection, despite being in a Biden-won district. Likely Republican.
Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R) and Assemblyman Christian Barranco (R) lack Bucco’s name, but Morris County’s GOP leanings in legislative races aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Dunn herself won a 2020 special election by 5 points, outrunning Trump’s performance in the district by 14. Both incumbents outran Ciattarelli’s performance in the district by a decent amount in 2021, and Ciattarelli won the new 25th by a solid 8-point margin. Likely Republican (2 seats).
LD-39 (Biden +6.4, Ciattarelli +7): State Senator Holly Schepisi (R) has often been mentioned as a potential future Gubernatorial candidate. Schepisi won by a 57%-42% margin over Democratic challenger Ruth Dugan in 2021, outrunning Ciattarelli by a considerable amount in the process. Democrats don’t have a challenger here yet, and this doesn’t seem like a district that they’re going to be targeting heavily this year. The left-trending nature of the district and the fact that Biden won it by a modest margin give Democrats an outside chance of flipping it, but Schepisi is in a comfortable position right now. Likely Republican.
Assemblyman Bob Auth (R) has had a tense relationship with Schepisi throughout the years. He first lost a special Senate election to Schepisi, then found her endorsing his primary opponents in his 2021 reelection bid. Their relationship didn’t really get in the way of their general election performance, however, with Auth and fellow Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio (R) easily beating back their Democratic challengers with a combined 56.2% of the vote. Auth and Schepisi have largely healed their relations, at least publicly, and they are running as a unified ticket this year. Likely Republican (1 seat).
Assemblywoman DeFuccio is not running for reelection and an open seat gives Democrats a slightly better chance at prevailing here. But Assembly races in New Jersey rarely deviate by a large amount and the strong Republican ticket elsewhere means that any Republican candidate will start as a general election favorite. Senator Schepisi is once again endorsing Saddle River Councilman John Azzariti (R) for this Assembly seat after his 2021 primary defeat to Auth and DeFuccio. This time around, Azzariti seems like the favorite for the open seat, but there’s a long way to go. Leans Republican (1 seat).
Longshot Targets… For Now (LDs 3, 14, 36, 40):
LD-03 (Trump +2.7, Ciattarelli +15.8): Senator Edward Durr (R) is once again the underdog. In 2021, he was on the front page of national newspapers after knocking out powerful former State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) with a budget of $153. The side effect of winning without any institutional support, however, is that you’re not going to get any in your future elections if you fail to cozy up with the “establishment” in an effective manner during your time in office. By most accounts, Durr has failed to do so, and he’s faced further questions about the apparent lack of adequate constituent services in his district. As a result, a serious primary challenge has emerged in the name of Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum (R). Ostrum has the backing of Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R) and most expect the Gloucester Republican Party to line up against Durr. Add that to Ostrum’s base in Salem, and Durr, despite being an incumbent, seems like an apparent underdog in this primary fight.
Democrats are not out of the discussion for the 3rd district either. South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross is publicly recruiting Sweeney to make a comeback bid for his Senate seat. A fully engaged South Jersey Democratic machine in an off-off-year would make the 3rd competitive in the general, especially if the GOP primary fight becomes increasingly nasty. However, it is an open secret that Sweeney has his eyes on the Governorship, so risking another loss in 2023 may not look appealing for his 2025 prospects. With so many factors yet to be settled, we’re starting this off as Likely Republican as a default rating, but this can definitely change based on the candidates fielded and the amount of investment from the two state parties.
The Assembly races in the district aren’t as high-profile, but there is similar drama unfolding on the Republican side. Assemblywomen Beth Sawyer (R) is running with Ostrum while Assemblywoman Bethanne McCarthy-Patrick (R) is running with Durr. Durr has recruited Hopewell Township Committeeman Tom Tedesco (R) to run on his ticket, while former Harrison Township Committeeman Adam Wingate (R) is expected to finish off Ostrum’s ticket. With their allegiances split, it seems likely that at least one of the Assemblywomen will lose renomination. Likely Republican (2 Seats).
LD-14 (Biden +18.4, Murphy +9.4): This is a pretty blue district to put on the playing field. It’s even bluer than the woefully uncompetitive LD-19, but both Democratic and Republican strategists alike agree that this is the most likely district to be Seat #21 in case of a GOP majority. State Senator Linda Greenstein (D) was a rare Senate Democrat to underperform her Assembly counterparts in the 2021 elections, and her electoral record isn’t as impressive as 19th district Senator Joseph Vitale (D) or 36th district Senator Paul Sarlo (D). The biggest problem for Republicans in the 14th is that the district is fully in either Mercer or Middlesex County, and the local GOPs there lack a strong bench. As a result, they will likely nominate 2021 LD-15 candidate Patricia Johnson as their candidate. Safe Democratic.
Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D) was the strongest performer on the ticket in 2021. With the state GOP lacking a strong bench, he seems to be in no immediate danger of losing at the moment. Safe Democratic (1 seat).
Assemblyman Dan Benson (D) is retiring to run for Mercer County executive. Another Mercer County Democrat is expected to take his place, although it isn’t yet clear who exactly that will be. An open seat gives the GOP a slight opportunity here, but it would likely mean forcing Greenstein and DeAngelo into close races first, which in itself is a tough task. Attorney Adam Elias, the 2021 GOP nominee for Senate, just announced his bid. Likely Democratic (1 seat).
LD-36 (Biden +13.7, Murphy +6.5): Democratic Senator Paul Sarlo (D) won by 14 points in 2021, outrunning Governor Murphy by a significant amount partly thinks to his strong showing in heavily Hispanic Passaic Township, where he received 72% of the vote. But his opponent Chris Auriemma only qualified for the general election via write-in and received no party support. If Republicans can get a credible candidate here this year (they have not at the moment), this could be a competitive race. Democrats only won the combined 2022 Congressional vote here by 8.4%, and if Hispanic-heavy Passaic breaks their downballot Democratic streak and the Democratic incumbents receive closer to Biden’s vote share of 62%, it could spell trouble. Safe Democratic.
Deputy Speaker Gary Schaer (D) is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the New Jersey Legislature. In 2021, he was actually the lowest Democratic vote-getter for legislature in the Bergen portion of the district, but absolutely blew the doors off in Passaic, earning a stunning 41% of the votes in a four-way race. The only question is whether the 71-year-old Schaer wants to retire, and that seems unlikely. Safe Democratic (1 seat).
Deputy Whip Clinton Calabrese (D) is the least electorally formidable of the bunch, but still earned a very impressive 27.8% of the vote districtwide in 2021. We feel like this district deserves a place on the board, at least early on when there’s more uncertainty, but the burden is on Republicans to prove that they can compete in the 36th with credible candidates this time after getting blown out in 2021, when three write-in candidates were their nominees. Likely Democratic (1 seat).
LD-40 (Biden +1.4, Ciattarelli +12.1): Despite being a Biden-won district, the 40th has been a solidly Republican seat at the legislative level. Senate Republican Conference Chair Kristin Corrado won 61% of the vote in 2021 and is in no danger of losing reelection this year. Safe Republican.
Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R) has served in the lower chamber since 2018. His only semi-close race was his initial election in 2017 when he beat out Democratic challenger Christine Ordway by slightly more than 3,500 votes. His subsequent reelection bids in this district have seen increasing margins of victory, despite the district gradually getting bluer. Safe Republican (1 seat).
Three-term Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R) was forced into retirement after Essex County GOP Chairman Al Barlas gained the support of party leaders after the addition of new Essex townships in redistricting. The move technically makes this an open seat in a Biden district, so we’re keeping this race barely on the board for now, but Democrats have an extremely tough hill to climb given the other two Republicans on the ticket will likely be cruising to reelection by large margins. Likely Republican (1 seat).
A Note on SD-12
In a truly astounding move, conservative State Senator Sam Thompson announced that he will run for reelection as a Democratic Party candidate. The party switch in this safely Republican seat may seem abnormal at first, but Thompson’s reelection campaign was already on thin ice beforehand. Seeing the 87-year-old Thompson as too old to serve, Republican leaders publicly encouraged Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry (R) to enter against Thompson.
Already missing out on the Monmouth organizational line and the underdog to win the other three county lines, Thompson’s reelection path was already looking quite complicated. But the party switch doesn’t make it easier. Top Democrats have welcomed Thompson into their caucus but have refused to endorse his candidacy, saying he’ll have to go through their nomination process just like all other candidates. Even with the primary out of the way, the general election is an unfeasible hill to climb.
While Thompson brings with him name recognition as the incumbent Senator, the district’s partisan lean of Ciattarelli +27 is simply too much for any Democrat to overcome in this day and age. Much of Thompson’s strength in the district comes from his native Old Bridge, but that strength may be neutralized by Henry’s presence. The last party switcher in the Senate, Dawn Addeigo (D), went down to defeat against now-Senator Jean Stanfield (R) in 2021. Addeigo’s LD-08 was much bluer, at Ciattarelli +6. Safe Republican (FLIP).