The NJEA’s Battle With Sweeney Cost $18.7 Million, Likely a U.S. Record

Steve Sweeney. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

The battle between Senate President Steve Sweeney and the New Jersey Education Association over his 3rd district Senate seat cost $18.7 million, likely making it the most expensive legislative race in American history, according to the state’s campaign finance watchdog.

Super PACs supporting and opposing Sweeney (D-Gloucester) spent $14.4 million, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Candidates in the district added $4.3 million to help shatter the previous state spending record for a legislative race.

And data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics indicates the NJEA’s costly war with Sweeney may be the most expensive legislative race in United States history too, according to ELEC. The $18.7 million spent in Sweeney’s district tops the $16.5 million poured into a 2000 state Senate race in California when adjusted for inflation.

Candidates and independent groups spent a state record $8.6 million on media ad buys in the 3rd district, where the NJEA, the state’s largest teachers union, tried to oust Sweeney, the highest-ranking Democrat in the state Legislature. Despite all the money spent and a flurry of attack ads labeling Sweeney as a “pay-to-play” politician, he won re-election by a whopping 18 points over Republican Fran Grenier on Nov. 7.

Independent spending on legislative races totaled $23 million across New Jersey during the primary and general election, according to ELEC. That is 43 percent more than the previous state record of $16.1 million in 2013.

“As independent special interest groups rapidly expand their influence over elections, spending records seem to be falling by the wayside almost every election cycle,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said in a statement. “The amount spent on the third legislative district alone this year is staggering. It is more than most past gubernatorial candidates have spent statewide.”

Candidates around New Jersey raised $43 million, spent $35.4 million and have $7.7 million left in reserves that can be used for future campaigns. When counting special interest groups, total spending in the general election reached $56.3 million, ELEC reported.

The biggest independent spender was Garden State Forward, the NJEA’s 527 group, which dumped $6.6 million into this year’s legislative elections, according to ELEC. The super PAC spent the vast majority of that sum – nearly $4.8 million – in Sweeney’s 3rd district, which includes all of Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties.

A super PAC supporting Sweeney, called New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, spent $5.8 million, according to ELEC. General Majority, a super PAC tied to South Jersey power broker George Norcross, was the third-biggest independent spender, pouring nearly $5.6 million into legislative races across the state.

The NJEA tried to take out Sweeney after he reneged on a promise to put a pension funding amendment on the ballot in 2016. The union also complained that Sweeney partnered with Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 to cut public-worker benefits. The effort to knock out Sweeney forced Democrats to spend millions of dollars on his district that could have been spent on other competitive races across New Jersey.

The 11th district, which includes parts of Monmouth County, was the second-most expensive district with candidates and independent groups spending nearly $5 million. Democrat Vin Gopal ousted Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) in the hotly-contested Senate race.

The 2nd district, which includes Atlantic City and most of Atlantic County, saw $3.8 million in total spending. Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) beat Sen. Colin Bell (D-Atlantic) to flip the seat for Republicans.

Democrats overwhelmingly outraised Republicans $31.8 million to $11.1 million, according to ELEC.

The NJEA’s Battle With Sweeney Cost $18.7 Million, Likely a U.S. Record