Both parties look ahead to ’09 Assembly campaigns

All eighty seats in the New Jersey General Assembly are up next year, with Democrats in strong shape to keep their majority under a legislative map that creates relatively few competitive races.

Republicans feel that they have a good chance to go on the offensive this year, even if taking control of the Assembly, where Democrats have a 48-32 majority, is an unlikely prospect. Assembly Republican Executive Director Rick Wright thinks the gubernatorial candidacy of U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, one of four Republicans actively exploring a statewide bid, would boost his party’s chances to pick up Assembly seats.

“It all depends on who our gubernatorial candidate is. I know there’s a lot of excitement out there about Chris Christie. If and when he makes his decision, that will help us in our recruiting. We have people out there sitting and saying I want to see what Chris Christie does,” Wright said. “A lot of county chairmen think we have a much better chance of success in gubernatorial and legislative races if Chris Christie is at the top of the ticket.”

In 2007, the big issue of all the legislative races was Gov. Jon Corzine’s asset monetization plan. Now that the toll hike plan is dead and buried, Wright thinks the focus this time around will be the Council on Affordable Housing’s (COAH) regulations, in which towns will have to match job growth with affordable housing growth.

“I think that’s going to be a huge issue in this election. I think it’s kind of a hidden issue. I think some Democrats are very worried about it,” he said.

Big priorities for both parties will be to reclaim lost seats. For Democrats, that’s in Monmouth County’s District 12. For Republicans, it’s in the Cape May/Cumberland-based first district.

Expect to see Democrats go on the offensive in the Atlantic County District 2 and possibly the 8th, in Burlington County. Republicans could try to win at least one Assembly seat in the Mercer/Middlesex District 14, and may open up newly competitive races in previously all-but-ignored Districts 36 and 38 in North Jersey.

Democrats will likely take at least one race they played in last year off the table: District 39, in north east Bergen County. Democrats spent millions to oust a long-term incumbent Republican slate, and didn’t come close.

“I’m telling the few people who asked me their opinion that they’re crazy to run,” said one Bergen County Democratic operative. “It’s a waste of their time and effort.”

District 1

Last year, then-Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) paved the way for a Democratic sweep of the district in his victory over incumbent Republican State Sen. Nicholas Asselta. Incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Albano held on, while Democratic Assembly candidate Matt Milam beat out Republicans Michael Donohue and Norris Clark by about 2,000 votes.

Most political observers agree that Van Drew’s bipartisan appeal helped carry his ticket. But next year he’s not on the ballot, and Republicans are going to try to reclaim seats they feel belong in their column.

Republican Party insiders are reluctant to reveal details about who they’re recruiting.

“I don’t know if I want to get ahead of myself and short circuit the process,” said Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage.

But Donohue, who was the top Republican vote getter last year, has expressed interest in running again.

“I think all options are on the table with Mike [Donohue],” said Von Savage. “He ran a good campaign, he’s a good candidate. He understands that the problem of government isn’t that there’s not enough revenue, but that there’s too much bureaucratic expense.”

Sources say that another candidate could come from Cumberland County, to lend the ticket some geographical balance. The problem is that the Republican Party there just suffered a big defeat by Democrats, who took compete control of the freeholder board and won two constitutional offices.

“They’ve got nothing,” said one insider. “The only thing standing is [County Clerk] Gloria Noto, and she’s got a bulls-eye on her back.”

District 2

In this district dominated by Atlantic County, Democrats spent millions on the race last year. Then-Assemblyman Jim Whelan managed to move up to the State Senate, with some help from retired Republican state Sen. Bill Gormley’s tacit endorsement. But Whelan’s running mates, Joe Wilkins and Blondell Spellman, were decisively beaten by Republicans John Amodeo and Vince Polistina.

Atlantic County is traditionally Republican. But since that election, Democrats have taken heart in the fact that they have 10,000 more registered voters there than Republicans. Barack Obama easily carried the county last week. Now Democrats have set their sights firmly on the two Assembly seats, and they hope that at least some of the new registrants will keep voting.

“Certainly with Senator Whelan at the helm now and with the improvements he has made for this area, it certainly would be nice to have two assembly people with him,” said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Patrick D’Arcy.

D’Arcy said that he’s just gearing up to start the recruitment process now. One name that’s frequently been mentioned is Freeholder Alisa Cooper, who just won reelection. D’Arcy said that he hasn’t talked to her about it yet.

“She’ll let me know if she’s interested and if she is I will certainly sit down with her,” he said.

Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis said that the political environment next year will be toxic for Democrats, and that Amodeo and Polistina have been among the most outspoken legislators against Democratic fiscal policies.

“I don’t think they’re going to be tough seats to defend. I think our two assemblymen have done a great job representing the districts’ interests, and I think the climate for Republicans next year is going to be very good,” he said. “I think we have the worst governor in the entire nation — someone who has raised taxes and created the worst business climate in terms of taxes.”

And true to Wright’s prediction, Amodeo and Polistina are holding a town hall meeting tonight to address their opposition to COAH regulations.

District 8

In 2007, Democrats spent a lot of money on a ticket headed up by Republican-turned-Democrat Assemblyman Fran Bodine, with lawyer Tracy Riley and businessman Chris Fifis for Assembly. They were all easily beaten by Republicans Phil Haines, Dawn Addiego and Scott Rudder.

But Burlington County Democrats had an amazing night last Tuesday, prying two freeholder seats from Republicans along with the county clerk’s office.

“We came closer than we ever came before for those assembly seats. I think we’ll build on that success, just like we built on the county level two years ago,” said Burlington County Democratic Chairman Rick Perr.

Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee Executive Director Mike Muller said that his party has momentum on its side.

“I think finally it all kind of clicked. John Adler as a Democratic congressman in that district, creating a democratic presence that never had it before, two seats on the freeholder board, a county clerk, a surrogate,” he said. “This changes the ball game there in a major way. I think in the 8th district, the numbers in an off year even larger, in a gubernatorial year you’ll get an even larger turnout.”

Still, the Burlington County Democrats’ first priority will be fighting for control of the freeholder board next year. One local Democratic operative s
aid to watch Evesham’s municipal elections, which could act as a portent for the 8th District.

Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton argued that the Democrats’ big night was mainly dependent on Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Corzine isn’t likely to have the same effect, he said.

Moreover, Layton noted, the Republican freeholder candidates last week still won the 8th District by over 5,000 votes.

“Those Assembly seats are not in play. They can’t win there because there are just too many Republicans in that district,” he said. “Dawn Addiego is a brand name down here. Scott Rudder who was a popular mayor in Medford. It’s going to be very difficult for Democrats.”

District 14

The 14th district was the “competitive” Clean Elections district last year, although that word didn’t describe the top race. Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton) easily beat Democrat Seema Singh for the state Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Peter Inverso.

But the bottom of the ticket was much closer game. Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro), running for her fifth term, relatively easily beat out Republican challengers Tom Goodwin and Adam Bushman. But it was much closer for Democrat Wayne DeAngelo, who just edged out Goodwin by about 900 votes.

This year, operatives from parties acknowledge, DeAngelo is going to in the Republicans’ sights again.

“Linda Greenstein…has a lot of seniority,” said Muller. “Quite frankly Wayne is going to be the lesser-known commodity, and they’re probably going to make the play. They’ll probably run a Hamiltonian against him.”

Possible candidates include: Hamilton Councilwoman Kelly Yaede; ’08 Sheriff candidate Jim McSorley, a retired State Police captain and an aide to U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith; outgoing Cranbury Township Committeeman Wayne Wittman; Goodwin, a Hamilton Councilman; and Bushman.

Districts 36 and 38

It is unlikely that Republicans will have the resources to play in both these districts, which are dominated by blue Bergen County, while staying competitive in other parts of the state. Bu they may at least take a second look at District 36.

Last year, a couple Republican operatives fielded write-in candidate Michael Guarino, 78, at the last minute to take on State Sen. Paul Sarlo. He came within 3,500 votes of Sarlo.

The Assembly races were even closer. Two virtually unknown candidates, Don Diorio and Carmen Pio Costa, came within 2,400 votes of incumbent Democrat Gary Schear (D-Passaic), and within 3,400 votes of incumbent Fred Scalera (D-Nutley).

Republican consultant Thom Ammirato, who was one of the operatives who fielded Guarino, said that the Republicans would have had a shot at winning if they the state GOP had stepped in earlier. The troubled EnCap development project, he said, helped make it ripe for takeover.

“If the GOP could come up with a good, solid candidate from Bergen to focus on these issues they’ve have a good shot,” he said.

Ammirato named a number of local Republicans he thinks would make good candidates: East Rutherford Councilman Joel Brizzi; Rutherford Councilwoman Rose Inguanti, an anti-EnCap activist; East Rutherford Mayor Jimmy Cassella; real estate broker and party activist Joe Crifasil; and Carlstadt Mayor Will Roseman.

District 38 seems like less of a pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Ammirato said that former state Senate candidate Robert Colletti may be willing to run again.

The Democrats’ vote totals in that district have been stronger than in 36, however, and the glimmer of hope Republicans felt last year died when state Sen. Joe Coniglio stepped down well before his indictment on corruption charges.

But a Democratic councilman in the important district town of Paramus just went down in defeat under an ethical cloud, and Coniglio’s trial is set to begin next year. Republicans think that could help put the district in play.

Rick Wright, for his part, mentioned both Districts 36 and 38 as ones where the Republicans could play next year.

Mike Muller, however, called the Republicans’ talk about competing in the districts “saber rattling.”

“Fred Scalera and Gary Schaer are established and well-respected incumbents,” he said. “If the Republicans are going to win those seats, they’re going to have to recruit top tier candidates,” he said.

Both parties look ahead to ’09 Assembly campaigns