The new class of legislators isn’t even seated yet, but that won’t stop us from speculating about the Assembly election in 2009.
Granted, two years is a political eternity, and which party will hold an advantage in that time depends most heavily on who’s at the top of the ticket. But when the new Assemblymen and women take their places in Trenton early next year, there will be 25 freshmen – several from competitive districts. Those represent the best opportunity for each party to knock off some incumbents.
Right now, however, from this great distance, it doesn’t appear as though any new districts will come into the fold, or that control of either legislative body is likely to shift. Indeed, it’s more likely that 2009 will see a smaller number of districts in play.
“I doubt that they will (come up), and it’s really because of the way the districts have been drawn — they really are not competitive,” said Joseph Marbach, a political science professor at Seton Hall University and PolitickerNJ.com contributor.
But, Marbach said, the gubernatorial race will ultimately determine that. Right now it’s not even certain that Gov. Corzine will seek re-election, though in recent interviews he’s hinted that he’s leaning in that direction. Republicans, for their part, are banking on U.S. Attorney Chris Christie getting into the race.
GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson acknowledged that newly competitive districts don’t appear on the horizon right now, but said that if the implementation of Corzine’s asset monetization plan proves to be as unpopular as the idea is now, and if the school funding formula proves unpopular, the landscape could change.
“That presents an opportunity to bring other places into the mix,” said Wilson. “Remember back to 1991. We weren’t running in great new districts. We were running in long-standing Democratically held districts where people said enough is enough and tossed Democrats out.”
As it stands right now, the first district looks to be one of the Republicans’ best shots at getting back some lost ground. Democratic and Republican observers acknowledge that Democratic Assemblyman/state Sen. Jeff Van Drew’s coattails played a role in holding Nelson Albano’s Assembly seat and shepherding in Matt Milam. But in 2009, Van Drew – whose reputation as an independent Democrat appeals to many Republican voters in this majority Republican district – will not be on the ballot.
Outgoing state Sen. Nicholas Asselta, who lost his seat to Van Drew, has not yet ruled out making a run for Assembly next time around. Asselta said that he didn’t see a move back to the Assembly, where he served for nine years, as a step down. Or, for that matter, if Van Drew decides to challenge U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo and wins, he could seek to take back his Senate seat. But right now, he’s starting a job search in both the public and private sector.
“Whatever I come up with will probably dictate my next year or two of thinking in a political or non-political way,” said Asselta. “It’s hard for me to give you a really truthful answer there because I don’t even know what I’m doing yet…. I don’t take anything off the table”
In case he doesn’t run, Asselta has a good idea of who the best candidates are: his two former running mates Norris Clark and Michael Donohue. The two relatively inexperienced candidates ran strong campaigns in one of the most expensive and hotly contested races in the state, he said, losing by relatively narrow margins. That alone makes them the strongest potential candidates.
“That’s a great deal of experience you cannot expect someone to have unless they’ve been through it,” said Donohue. “I’ve seen 13 years of legislators, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, and these guys are as good as it gets.”
Donohue said that he’s been asked to consider running again, and hasn’t ruled it out.
“It’s something I’d consider, sure. I’m certainly not saying I wouldn’t do it again,” he said.
Other party officials, however, say that Donohue and Clarke have the disadvantage of coming from Van Drew’s own Cape May County, and that the party may need to field candidates from neighboring Cumberland. Van Drew may not be on the ballot, but no matter what he’ll likely be campaigning for the two Democrats, which could draw some Republican votes in his home county.
In district 2, state Senator-Elect Jim Whelan may have won easily last month against State Sen. James “Sonny” McCullough, but he didn’t turn out to have the same kind of coattails that Van Drew did. The two Republican Assembly candidates won handily.
Democratic sources say that their party is hankering for another shot at those two Assembly seats, and one name seems to stand out in the potential Democratic field: Damon Tyner, a 37-year-old African-American lawyer from Atlantic City who was Jim Whelan’s Assembly running mate in 2005.
“I’m a team player. That’s what I will say. It’s always something that’s going to be out there — whether I would be interested in being a candidate,” said Tyner. “I’m always flattered and kind of mystified when people are putting their faith in me to run.”
As in most districts, political strategists are loathe to give up names of people they think would make strong candidates and thus give opponents an opportunity to start research early. But other names that pop up in the second district include Blondell Spellman, who was the bottom vote getter in last month’s race, and Egg Harbor City Mayor Joseph Kuehner, who dropped out of this year’s Assembly race citing his father’s health.
District 12 remains a sore spot for Democrats, and if they want to regain Assembly seats back there, there’s no time better than 2009 – before freshmen Assemblypersons Declan O’Scanlon and Caroline Casagrande get too entrenched.
“Do I think they will make another push? Yes. Do I think that’s money wisely spent? No,” said Tom Fitzimmons, who managed the 12th district Republican campaigns this year. “I think (Mike) Panter’s going to run again, and I think they’ll take one more shot with the understanding that Declan and Caroline are fairly new and if they’re going to be gotten, it’s in the next election.”
Panter, who was ousted last month after two Assembly terms, was edged out by Casagrande by 510 votes in this slightly Republican leaning district. By comparison, state Sen. Ellen Karcher lost to Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck by 3,900. Some insiders consider his loss a result of Karcher’s decline during the last few weeks of the campaign. Panter is also considered a favorite to take on Beck in 2011 – especially if redistricting takes some Republican towns out of the district.
Panter said that he has been approached about the prospect of running again, but hasn’t put any serious thought into it.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead. Whenever I’ve seen candidates lose elections and the very next day declare their candidacy for the next cycle, it’s always struck me as a little odd,” said Panter, referring to O’Scanlon’s narrow loss to him in 2005. “I think to define yourself by politics to that degree can be unhealthy.”
“If there’s an opportunity again I might very well welcome it, but I’m not going to fixate on it, at least in the short term,” said Panter.
In district 14, Republicans ran an extremely close Assembly campaign last month. But then they had the popular and moderate Bill Baroni at the top of their ticket. He won’t be there this time around, which likely means that if they’re going to make a serious play against anyone, it will be freshman Wayne DeAngelo, who has strong labor support.
Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein was significantly ahead of the rest of the field, even surviving a media campaign against her conducted by a conservative group.
Up in Bergen County, district 39 remains heavily Republican, where three long-time legislators all had incumbency advantages. Democrats made a play for the district in the lead up to last month’s election, but significantly cut back on funding after polls showed them at an insurmountable disadvantage.
But Democrats’ decision may hinge on John Rooney’s hip replacement. If he stays, Democrats may not poor a lot of resources into a district where they had a tough time making a dent. If he goes – depending on the timing – expect a fight. Foremost among Democratic contenders to replace him is Esther Fletcher, who lost to Rooney by about 5,700 votes.
Fletcher has already announced that she’s likely to run for Assembly again, while her former running mates Carl Manna and Joe Ariyan have left the door open to the possibility. On the Republican end, wealthy defense contractor Bob Schroeder would be the favorite to succeed Rooney.
Republican campaign consultant Thom Ammirato thinks that there is at least one district that could be competitive in 2009: the 36th, where virtually unfunded Republican candidates Don Diorio and Carmen Pio Costa came within a little under 2,000 votes of beating Democratic incumbent Gary Schaer.
But the odds are still very much stacked against Republicans in that district, where Democrats hold a significant registration advantage and a huge financial one. Indeed, the district did not see the full fundraising muscle of the Democratic Party in action. And a low-turnout year was advantageous for Republicans – with a gubernatorial race, 2009 will see a much higher turnout.
But Ammirato still sees reason to be optimistic.
“If we get the right candidates in 36 under the right circumstances, we can make a run at this thing,” said Ammirato, who worked on the last 36th district candidates’ campaigns. “It’s an intriguing possibility.”