Featured Race: Lacking resources, Monmouth Democrats play for the future in LD 11

The Combatants

Republicans: Incumbent state Sen. Jennifer Beck, Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, and Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande

Democrats: Freeholder Ray Santiago (Senate candidate), Assembly candidate Vin Gopal, and Assembly candidate Kathy Horgan of Red Bank

Independent: Dan Jacobson (Assembly candidate)

Background:

If they win, Beck and her Republican team would be the first all-woman ticket in the history of the New Jersey Legislature. Redistricting welded towns from Beck’s old 12th District (Red Bank, Shrewsbury, Colts Neck, Tinton Falls, Freehold Twp.) onto the surviving pieces of the new 11th, including key Democratic towns Asbury Park, Long Branch and Neptune and Ocean.

The new 11th lost Republican-prized Rumson and Wall, and the senator broke from a base of hard Republican, Republican-leaning, and battleground towns, including Little Silver, Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach, Manalapan and Marlboro.

On paper at least, the new district gives Democrats a registered voter advantage of 10,000 votes. But LD 11 is situated in heavily Republican Monmouth County, where unaffiliated voters traditionally lean Republican. Gov. Chris Chris Christie’s approval rating here is close to 60%, according to campaign internal polling on both sides of this fight. In the old LD 11, Christie in 2009 defeated former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine 62-38%, in the new LD 11, he bested Corzine 65 to 35%; in the old 12, Christie bested Corzine 65 to 32%, and in the new LD 12, the Republican beat the Democrat, 64 to 36%. 

What it means finally is that Democrats must hold all of their Democratic Party registereds in addition to winning 35-37% of independent voters, say sources.

A moderate Republican who voted in favor of women’s healthcare funding when Christie urged the caucus against it, then again supported it in an override of the governor’s veto, Beck four years ago won the state’s most competitive matchup when she defeated incumbent state Sen. Ellen Karcher (D-12) in a vicious encounter.

If Beck looks too tough to take down in this cycle given the arc of Monmouth GOP history, Democrats want to at least prevent one of the Republican assemblywomen from re-election. Their initial target is attorney Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Colts Neck), member of the Congressional Redistricting Commission and mother of two young children, who doesn’t have Beck’s name ID.  

Key Dynamics:

Shortly after redistricting and the addition of those key towns to the eleventh, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) publicly declared his interest in the newly forged district, and subsequently attended at least one fundraiser for the Democratic team. But competitive races in LD 2, LD 14 and LD 38 have otherwise kept the state Democratic Committee and other big three party fundraising arms tied up on those fronts, depriving LD 11 Dems of the resources to go on offense.

It’s not all negative for the underdogs.

Over the past decade, the resourceful county party leader Gopal has cultivated significant party contacts. The former campaign and financial consultant for Democrats in Middlesex and Essex counties, the Democratic candidate received $5,000 this week from state Sen. Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18), and welcomed Newark Mayor Cory Booker to Monmouth to headline a Gopal fundraiser. Booker’s presence on the Santiago Team drew an angry phone call from Beck Republicans, who reminded Booker they have supported the big city mayor in the past in the spirit of bipartisanship but won’t be so inclined in the future. Based on his friendship with Gopal, Booker stumped for the Assembly candidate anyway. Still, it wasn’t the necessary big money.

Democrats take additional organizational comfort in the fact that Neptune Mayor Kevin McMillan is running for re-election to bounce their numbers in that Democratic stronghold. But moderate Republican businesswoman Angelini remains popular in her hometown of Ocean, which leans Democrat but looks tough to penetrate with Angelini on the ticket.

The contest’s independent Assembly contestant, alternative newspaper publisher Jacobson, represents what Democratic Party sources say is a wash candidate. He supports Gov. Christie’s stand against public sector unions. But Jacobson also supports gay marriage – a critical issue for Asbury Park’ gay community angry at the moderate Beck for flip-flopping on marriage equality. While Democrats focus on driving their property tax relief message to independents, Jacobson could wrestle away parts of the gay vote in Asbury Park with his primarily Libertarian message. Beck has already made her own play for the gays, assuring Garden State Equality that next time she would vote in favor of overriding a gubernatorial veto on the issue. The vow was enough to land Beck Garden State Equality’s endorsement.    

Future Implications:

Their redistricting victory energized Democrats mostly for the future. The old LD 11 and LD 12 were already competitive four years ago, as Karcher lost by around 3,500 votes to Beck. But the way the new 11th is blended now, the right future time – even as soon as gubernatorial election 2013 – could entice Democrats to engage real resources in the eleventh. An unpopular Republican Gov. Christie heading into re-election season could persuade powerful Democrats to build on the party-building LD 11 Democrats accomplish now. Of course, a popular Christie in two years could also bury them in political oblivion. Given his numbers now, some Democratic Party members talk about a conquer-ready LD 11 circa 2015 or 2017.

Outcome:

If Beck and the Republicans remain puzzled by what they see early as a lack of engagement from the other side, the main reason for that is money. Dems have to save what they have for the end, and even then, most of it will go toward a full-bore field operation.  It could turn out that Beck and company won’t have to withstand what they now expect will be some kind of artillery attack before election. Sources say Democrats may be more inclined through Election Day to continue doing what they are doing now: emphasizing Santiago’s story as a kid from Brooklyn who became a lawyer and understands the struggles of the middle class and the demands of running a business, and Gopal’s appeal as a small businessman. Still, Republicans trust the Democrats ‘ reliance on comparative small dollars and public sector worker support won’t help them in a property tax-strapped GOP-leaning district. The addition of Neptune and Gopal’s hometown of Long Branch creates enticing opportunity for Democrats. But given Christie’s and Beck’s popularity and Obama’s weak numbers, 2011 does not look like their time.

Strong Republican  – now

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