The Contestants: Incumbent state Sen. Robert Gordon, (D-Far Hills) versus Bergen County Freeholder Chairman John Driscoll of Paramus.
Background: A former mayor and long-serving assemblyman, Gordon advanced to the Senate seat four years ago when the feds arrested former state Sen. Joe Coniglio on corruption charges. Driscoll rose to power as a freeholder in 2009 on a wave of Chris Christie love in the aftermath of former Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joe Ferriero’s well-publicized corruption trial (which he ultimately won). An Ivy league trained businessman who grew up driving a forklift in the family-owned plant, Gordon has a reputation as a thoughtful, independent senator whose aversion to demagoguing issues also contributes to his far less than stunning name recognition in Bergen households. He opposed all of Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial policies and consequently owns the backing of both private and public-sector unions. A salesman, Driscoll projects every-day-guy affability and supports the Republican Party’s state agenda advanced by Christie, including public sector worker health, pension and benefits overhauls and the refusal to tax higher income earners.
Key Dynamics: Redistricted this year from a leans-Democrat onto a more competitive turf, with Republican-leaning Hawthorne voters now among his constituents, the progressive Gordon faces the challenge of introducing himself to new voters. Name ID was never Gordon’s strong point anyway. Now he has the added obstacle of connecting in a town where even local Democrats are disgruntled because the state party made a casualty during redistricting of long-serving state Sen. John Girgenti, (D-35). Never a party organization guy, Gordon can effectively argue his independence from the old broken down BCDO – unlike the county government incumbents destroyed last year by their GOP challengers. Redistricting also deprived Gordon of one of his running mates, Joan Voss, who’s running for freeholder. And arguably most significantly, as in every other race in this legislative cycle, Gordon faces the additional hindrance of being an incumbent at a time when the angriest voters appear to be intent on punishing incumbents over the economy. As for Driscoll, the Republican at least so far has not produced evidence that he has the ability to raise a lot of money. That could change with Christie’s aggressive financial connections providing an October infusion to the so-far low-key challenger.
Larger implications of race: On the strength of GOP performances in back-to-back election cycles, Republicans now want total dominance of Bergen County, and have a legitimate shot – based on their county candidates’ sweep last year in county government races. Christie in his 2009 victory was competitive in Bergen, and almost won. In his 2013 re-election bid he would prefer greater control of New Jersey’s biggest county. Now, Democrats have three Bergen-based senators versus the Republicans’ one. A Driscoll victory over Gordon would even the odds, while victories by the Republicans’ freeholder candidates would place Bergen County in even firmer Republican control pre-2013. Democrats want to block Christie from gaining control of another senator here – and they also want to prevent Christie – who’s already publically low-balled expectations for GOP pickups in this cycle – from being able to brag in the election’s aftermath about landing wins on a very challenging map for Republicans. Not to be discounted is the importance of the race for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who’s up for re-election next year and wants to reverse a trend of Democratic Party losses in one of his key statewide building block counties.
Outcome: It’s all about the money. Since neither candidate has rock star recognition, dollars will prove critical for a win here in a toss-up contest. If pre-election reports indicate that state Sen. Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, is willing to significantly financially engage for a Gordon victory, Gordon will have the edge on Election Day. Regardless, he will have a solid GOTV operation with the energized support of labor for a Democrat who supported workers throughout the most intense times of the Christie era. But if Christie’s financial arm does the same, Driscoll will get a big boost heading into his challenge of an incumbent in a terrible year for incumbency.
Mind Boggling Fact: Gordon’s wife is a Republican and dedicated Christie fundraiser.
See all of PolitickerNJ’s featured races here