11 Races to Watch in NJ

 New Jersey will go to the presidential polls in a matter of days, with downballot candidates braced for impact. (Getty Images)

New Jersey will go to the presidential polls in a matter of days, with downballot candidates braced for impact. (Getty Images) Getty Images

Though New Jersey is all but guaranteed not be in play on the presidential electoral map this year, down-ballot races in the state will be hanging in the balance when voters coming out for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton go to the polls on November 8. Whether they change the landscape or just prove the mettle of longtime incumbents, these are the most significant races to watch.

  1. The 5th congressional district – Congressman Scott Garrett, the rare far-right success story among New Jersey’s delegation in Washington, is facing his first serious challenge from Democratic newcomer and former Microsoft executive Josh Gottheimer. Gottheimer has a hefty war chest, raising millions to nearly match the 13-year incumbent for cash on hand. If Gottheimer succeeds, it could be a sign that voter mores in the conservative district have changed along with its 2010 redistricting.
  2. Monmouth County – Another part of the state where Democrats stand to move in on historically Republican territory. Democratic county chair Vin Gopal has assembled a veteran-heavy county slate, with strong contenders for sheriff, county surrogate and the freeholder board. Monmouth saw the biggest upset of last year’s elections when Democratic Assembly members Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling unseated two sitting Republicans, and this year will be the test of whether Gopal can sustain that momentum.
  3. Somerset County – Republican-leaning but thickly planted with Democrats, the Somerset County sheriff’s race has been one of the state’s most lively—dirty tricks and personal attacks have abounded, including an incident where a plane bearing a sign for the Republican incumbent flew overhead during his Democratic challenger’s retirement ceremony. The Democrats suffered in the face of hard-hitting Republican opposition research, and had to quickly replace their candidate for freeholder. This race will be ground zero for any statewide down-ballot effect if Trump’s candidacy motivates unsatisfied Republicans to stay home.
  4. The 7th congressional district – This race is Republican incumbent Leonard Lance’s to lose, by a huge margin. Bernie Sanders Democrat Peter Jacob is running his campaign on a shoe-string budget with the state party focusing its attention and resources on defeating Garrett up north. But if Jacob’s campaign can piggyback on strong Democratic turnout to go down by a smaller-than-expected margin, N.J. Democrats may think twice about treating the district as a foregone conclusion in the future.
  5. The Elizabeth school board – The long political rivalry between Democratic State Senator Ray Lesniak and the Elizabeth Board of Education will be on full display this year when the ticket he endorsed goes up against three incumbents. Incumbent Jose Rodrigues, who this publication singled out for co-signing a lease on a primary residence outside the city, will be fighting for his seat. So will Carlos Trujilo, who has called a dismissed domestic violence charge politically motivated.
  6. The Jersey City school board – Though less of a flashpoint than when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop was still rumored to be weighing a gubernatorial bid, Jersey City will see major changes as three incumbents decline to seek reelection and ten candidates rush to fill those three-year terms. Reform ticket Jersey City United will face the union-backed Education Matters ticket in a race that has already been marked by violence: a physical fight between two men supporting either slate erupted during an October 5 meeting, with one man spitting on the other. In return, the other man licked his opponent’s face.
  7. Ballot question number two – This ballot question to tie any and all funds raised by the controversial gas tax increase to funding transportation projects has already driven a wedge between Governor Chris Christie and Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who is considering a run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to become Christie’s successor. With the gas tax over and done with, Republicans and Democrats alike are likely to vote this one through.
  8. Ballot question number one – This ballot question, which has dimmer prospects, would amend the state constitution to allow two new casinos outside of Atlantic City. After a hard-fought publicity campaign where pro-expansion and anti-expansion groups made major TV ad buys, pro-expansion group “Our Turn N.J.” abruptly closed up shop last month. How hard voters come down on the question could determine whether it comes up again after a requisite waiting period.
  9. The presidential race – Though New Jersey will go blue on election night, the presidential election will be an acid test for where the various centers of Democratic power in the state stand with one another, and with the DNC as a whole. Beyond the opportunities for regional bosses to distinguish their organizations as they get out the vote for Clinton, the state’s anticipated sure-thing status for Clinton could make it a case study of how thoroughly voters reject Trump or how unenthusiastically they turn out for Clinton.
  10. The 2nd congressional district – This district, which encompasses Atlantic City, enjoyed an early spotlight when Clinton brought her attacks against Trump local outside the site of the Trump Taj Mahal casino. But despite the city’s unique and troubled history with the real estate developer, Republican congressman Frank LoBiondo looks poised for victory against his Democratic opponent Dave Cole. The result on election day could be a referendum on LoBiondo’s popularity in the heavily Republican surrounding counties, or a simple missed opportunity for the state Democratic party.
  11. The Lumberton township council – Lumberton is in the unique position of having its entire governing body under investigation by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Republicans on the council purportedly swapped campaign funds between themselves in excess of state law on maximum contributions, though investigations are ongoing for several of the council members named in Democratic challenger Terrance P. Benson’s ELEC complaints.
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