Featured Race: LD14 – Labor will be front and center in one of the state’s few competitive districts

Combatants: The district is currently represented by Democratic Sen. Linda Greenstein and Democratic Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson.  The trio is challenged by Hamilton School Board member Richard Kanka, Robbinsville Councilwoman Sheree McGowan and former Cranbury Mayor Wayne Wittman.  Green Party candidate Steven Welzer is also in the mix.

Background: The 14th has long been known as the district of ticket-splitters, savvy enough to look beyond the line.  But for the past year, the district has been owned by Democrats, led by stalwart Sen. Linda Greenstein.

Greenstein took the seat from Republican Tom Goodwin last year, after Goodwin was appointed to fill the spot vacated by Republican Bill Baroni, when Baroni left for the Port Authority. 

Greenstein, who served in the Assembly for a decade before ascending to the Senate seat, is arguably the most battle tested legislator in either house.  The 14th is one of the most competitive districts in the state and Greenstein has faced several tough challenges in her decade-plus in office.  In knocking off Goodwin, Greenstein defeated a popular incumbent and proven vote-getter from the district’s largest town.  Greenstein is hugely popular with organized labor as evidenced by the standing O she received from union rank and file during the recent hearings on pension and benefit reforms.

Kanka, a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union, is better known as the father of Megan, the little girl murdered by a twice-convicted pedophile and the impetus for the sex offender registry laws that carry her name.  Kanka is polling well, Republicans say, has huge name recognition after years of shepherding Megan’s law through the Legislature and various court challenges and is likely the GOP’s best shot at picking up a seat in the district.

On the Assembly side, union leader Wayne DeAngelo has solid support in the public employee-heavy 14th and has deep pockets due to his labor ties.  DeAngelo is well liked on both sides of the aisle though he angered some Democrats earlier this year when his electrical workers union endorsed Republican Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo in his re-election bid.  DeAngelo is a former Hamilton councilman, who was defeated by a Republican slate that included Goodwin.

Dan Benson is a newcomer to the ticket, taking the seat vacated by Greenstein.  Republicans say he is the weak link on the Democratic ticket and early in the campaign they had visions of knocking the short-timer off.  But turmoil on the Republican side caused by Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried’s withdrawal from the race due to health concerns has left the GOP without a front-line name to challenge Benson.  Though Benson is from Hamilton, his popularity there is questionable.  In his last run for Mercer County Freeholder, Benson was beaten in blue-collar Hamilton by a candidate from tony Princeton. He pulled enough votes from Trenton to secure the race, but his Hamilton loss has Republicans salivating.

Both McGowan and Wittman are proven winners in their respective towns, though neither has strong name recognition outside their home turf.  McGowan was a last-minute fill-in for Fried and was not the party’s first choice to replace the popular Robbinsville mayor.  Insiders say the GOP may have wasted an opportunity to grab back the seat once held by Baroni before he moved up to the Senate. One story line playing out in the Assembly race involves McGowan’s husband Dave, who went to war several years ago with the Robbinsville firefighters and was instrumental in the dissolution of the town’s fire district in favor of a town-run department.  Some sources speculate the union may be gunning for McGowan in a revenge vote, though Republicans dismiss the issue, saying she has won in Robbinsville since the fire department battle with no union intervention.

 

Key Dynamics:  The organized labor-heavy 14th promises to be the epicenter of union wrath as public workers look to grab scalps for last summer’s controversial pension and benefits reform vote. Greenstein and DeAngelo are both darlings of the labor movement – a resume prerequisite for success in the 14th – and all three Democrats voted against the measure.  Union money and manpower already are flowing in the 14th and the labor get out the vote efforts in the district have always been legendary.

Kanka also is a union member, but that bona fide was muted somewhat when Greenstein scored the endorsement of the pipefitters on the day Kanka announced his bid. Privately some insiders say Kanka’s challenge is a difficult one. He must convince voters in the district he will do for them what Greenstein has done, but somehow do it better.  That’s an uphill climb where labor is concerned considering Kanka represents the party of Christie and is an unknown quantity where state politics are concerned.

Still Hamilton is the district’s largest municipality and Greenstein is the only senator ever to lose in Hamilton and still win the election.  A big win for the Republican on his home turf could be enough to unseat the incumbent.

Democrats have always had a solid voter registration advantage in the district, but unaffiliated voters dwarf the partisans, making them the key to victory. Republicans say the changes brought about by redistricting, namely the subtraction of Democratic South Brunswick and the addition of Robbinsville lean in their favor, and they may have a point.

In 2009, Gov. Chris Christie eked out a win in the district with 50.8 percent of the vote to Jon Corzine’s 49 percent.  Under the new district parameters, Christie’s performance jumps slightly to 52 percent against Corzine’s 47.7 percent.

Campaigning in the 14th is no cheap affair.  A recent study released by the Election Law Enforcement Commission shows over the past decade candidates in the district have spent more money than in any other district in the state.  As of July, when the last campaign finance reports were filed, Greenstein, DeAngelo and Benson held a hefty lead in the money race.  New reports are due out next week. 

Larger Implications of Race: This race is considered to be competitive with the GOP holding a solid shot at picking up a seat in one or both houses.  While Christie has said the legislative contests are not a referendum on his leadership, there is no doubt the governor’s war with the unions will play a role in the 14th.  If the GOP fails to grab a seat in the 14th there are few other places to turn to try to shrink the Democratic majority.

Under accepted political wisdom, both Greenstein and Benson are at their most vulnerable in this race, given that each is in their first term.  A win by either will make them that much tougher to knock off in 2013 and could keep LD 14 in Democratic hands indefinitely.

Outcome: If Kanka and company can raise enough money to get their message out, this could be a horse race.  With his name recognition and Hamilton roots, Kanka could become a strong contender.  But Greenstein is a battler and a savvy tactician not afraid to get her hands dirty, and she hasn’t lost a race in more than a decade.

On the Assembly front, where Benson may have appeared vulnerable in the early going, he has thus far been a strong campaigner.  On top of that, he wants it. Badly.  With Fried off the ticket, the opportunity to unseat him may be a distant memory.  DeAngelo will likely ride to victory on the backs of the union faithful.  While this one is far from a sure thing, at this point in the game it leans Democrat.

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Featured Race: LD14 – Labor will be front and center in one of the state’s few competitive districts