With the state assembly races accelerating after the unofficial starting gun of Labor Day weekend, the contest in South Jersey’s competitive first legislative district is set to be one of the state’s most hard-fought. Republican incumbent Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi will be facing off against his Democratic counterpart Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, who is running with the prominent support of Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1). The question remains as to whether the Republican ticket can drum up the kind of outsize popular support that Van Drew brings to Andrzejczak by stressing their Republican bona fides.
The first district’s party politics are unusual for the state, with the Democratic and Republican sides both approaching a moderate, center-right near consensus on the issues. On environmental protections, social issues like immigration, and the role of government in promoting economic growth while keeping taxes low, Andrzejczak and Fiocchi both skew moderate to center-right.
Fiocchi and Sauro have been attempting to show their stripes in calling for a repeal of the Cumberland County freeholder board’s recent resolution in favor of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and have faulted Andrzejczak for not voicing a firm opinion when a bill offering in-state tuition to some undocumented students passed in 2013.
Breaking the equilibrium will certainly be crucial, but Montclair State University Political Scientist Brigid Harrison said that while divisive issues like immigration are playing well on the national stage for Republican presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump, Fiocchi and Andrzejczak would be introducing them into their pitch to voters at their own peril.
“Those kinds of issues, while a legislator may get voters to agree or disagree, are not going to be the issues that determine how people vote,” said Harrison.
Harrison added that the flagging local economy would most likely be the defining issue for the race, and that Governor Christie’s unpopularity in state polls could make courting the Republican base to the exclusion of others a risky venture, especially if disenchanted Republicans stay home themselves on election day.
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, who will be fundraising for Fiocchi’s campaign this weekend, described the LD1 Republican ticket as thoroughly independent.
“I would put my faith in Fiocchi and Sauro because they will vote their conscience, and on behalf of their district,” said Bramnick. “No one’s gonna tell them how to vote or what to do.”
It will be difficult for either side to count on simple party politics in a climate that rewards relationships with constituents over alliances in Trenton and DC, but these five critical issues have seen Fiocchi and Sauro attempt to draw a clear line between themselves, national Democrats and the Andrzejczak camp — especially by drawing attention to the ways in which their policy recommendations diverge from Van Drew’s.
1) The local economy
LD1’s Cumberland, Cape May and Atlantic Counties have some of the worst economic blight and unemployment in the country. The Republican ticket has emphasized business experience and pragmatism of Fiocchi and his running mate Atlantic County Freeholder Jim Sauro and distanced itself from what they have characterized as the Van Drew team’s slow-going, state-funded approach. The Fiocchi-Sauro campaign recently criticized Van Drew’s Economic Development Task Force for its pace and its relationship to the Andrzejczak campaign, calling the meeting a “carefully orchestrated political dog-and-pony show.”
2) Immigration and social issues
Recently, Fiocchi and Sauro have been speaking to social issues like immigration and the death penalty, calling for a repeal of the Cumberland County freeholder board’s recent resolution to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and coming out in favor of a bill to bring back the death penalty in killings of police. The Republican Assembly candidates have been the most vocal on these issues. Although the two sides agree, Fiocchi and Sauro have beaten Andrzejczak and Land to the punch in bringing attention to them.
3) PAC spending
While Fiocchi has drawn most of his support from the district’s business community and state Republican leaders like Bramnick, the Democrats have significant PAC money on their side. The General Majority PAC ran ads in LD1 insinuating that Republican legislators were to blame for the proposal to build new casinos in North Jersey (a raw nerve in a district whose economic fortunes are inextricably linked to Atlantic City). Fiocchi and Sauro have mocked the Democratic campaign for its distance and the favor it has drawn from outside organizations by bringing cardboard cutouts of Andrzejczak and running mate Bruce Land to their events.
4) The environment
Fiocchi took pains to distance himself from national Democrats by coming out against President Obama’s ethanol mandates in a public letter to the president. Fiocchi has made public appeals to increase dredging for spoils in the first district’s bays and waterways, and Van Drew’s proposed State Dredging Task Force continues to take shape in the legislature. Both Fiocchi and Andrzejczak are in favor of the the proposed South Jersey gas pipeline.
5) Taxes and incentives
Fiocchi and Sauro’s most consistent talking points have been tax cuts and a traditional Republican agenda of smaller government. Calling for more tax incentives for businesses big and small, their message to voters at numerous town halls has been that the tax structure needs to change in order to entice industry back to southernmost Jersey and away from states like Maryland and Pennsylvania. For their part, Andrzejczak and Van Drew are promising caps on state spending and middle class tax relief.