| All 80 seats in the lower house of the NJ legislature are up for re-election this year, but the 40 legislative districts (2 assemblymen from each) are so heavily gerrymandered that only a few districts are ever in play. Right now, the Democrats have a 48-32 majority; Republicans must pick up seats in five districts to re-take a majority.
The conventional wisdom here in that Republicans will pick up seats in a few swing districts, but not enough to take control of the Assembly, which has been under Democratic control for years. Further CW is that there's a "throw-the-bums-out" anti-Democratic sentiment in these swing districts right now.
Probable GOP pickups
There are two districts currently represented by Democrats that will most likely be represented by Republicans next year.
One is the first legislative district (LD1), a South Jersey district comprised of Cape May County and parts of Cumberland and Atlantic Counties. The Shore region has long been one of the most favorable parts of the state for the GOP, and this year this part of the state is the one Christie has a real lock on.
The Democratic incumbents are Assemblymen Matthew Milam and Nelson Albano, and they're most likely headed for defeat. Instead of their 2007 running mate, popular Sen. Jeff Van Drew, at the top of the ticket, the unpopular Gov. Jon Corzine is - and Christie may win this district by a double-digit margin. If I had to pick one district to flip, this would be it. The GOP nominees are Mike Donohue, an attorney from Dennis Township who was also the GOP nominee in 2007, and John McCann, a businessman who chairs the Ocean City Republican Party and serves on the Cape May County Tax Board. They're a pair of real wingnuts; they support abolishing – not cutting, abolishing – the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The good news here for the Dems is that they have a huge five-to-one leg up in fundraising, thanks to the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine. Also, even though Milam and Albano don't have Van Drew's electoral coattails to rely upon, Van Drew has been out there campaigning like hell for them.
The other seat that's likely to flip is LD36, where Assemblymen Frederick Scalera and Gary Schaer barely managed to hold onto their seats two years ago. LD36 is a suburban district comprised of most of southern Bergen County, plus Nutley in Essex County and the infamously corrupt city of Passaic in the county of the same name.
There's a reason why voters came close to throwing out Scalera and Schaer in 2007. The pair, especially Schaer, is closely tied to the disastrous EnCap project. Even though that's all over with now, and even though the state executive branch is the one that actually mismanaged that project into the ground, Schaer was still one of the original big proponents of the project. This was enough to rouse constituents to try and teach him a lesson in 2007, and it will be enough in 2009. Add that together with voter frustration over property taxes, corruption, and Gov. Corzine's failed affordable housing initiative, and voila! You've got a recipe for disaster for Scalera and Schaer.
This race is going to be very, very close, especially since suburban areas like this one are being sought after by both Christie and Corzine. The GOP nominees are Don Diorio, a school board member and businessman in Carlstadt, and Carmen Pio Costa of Nutley, who manages a real estate investment business. This is the same ticket that almost unseated the incumbents in 2007, and once again they're pulling no punches. They've assailed Scalera and Schaer for their support of COAH and Corzine's tax increases, for their involvement with EnCap, and for their double-dipping tendencies. (The latter is not unusual for New Jersey politicians, but it's certainly never something that voters support. Schaer, for the record, is also the President of the Passaic City Council, while Scalera collected a big, fat second salary for a public job with Essex County for quite some time.
Other GOP targets
The GOP is also aiming to pick up seats in LD14, the only district represented by different parties in the Senate and Assembly (Sen. Bill Baroni is a Republican). The key in this district is to be pro-labor, because plenty of unionized state workers live in this Central Jersey district, which is fairly close to the state capital.
Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo and Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein are both very pro-labor, so if there's a big labor turnout for Corzine, they could be safe. But if there are state workers still smarting over the unpaid furloughs Corzine imposed, GOP nominees Rob Calabro (a member of the Hamilton Planning Board who owns several Mercer County food markets) and Bill Harvey (a general practice attorney) could have a pretty good shot at unseating the incumbents. Interestingly, the Middlesex County GOP is ticked off at the Mercer County GOP because both nominees are from Hamilton, in Mercer County. I'm not sure if that'll affect the race.
There are two other districts where the GOP has a reasonable possibility of picking up seats. One is LD4, a swingy South Jersey district comprised of parts of Camden and Gloucester Counties. Folks, with a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage, this gerrymandered district is usually dominated by George Norcross and his South Jersey Democratic machine. But people in this suburban district -- like people in most other parts of New Jersey -- are generally viewing Gov. Corzine negatively. Suddenly the GOP is viewing the LD4 seats as a viable option. The seats are currently occupied by Assemblywoman Sandra Love, who is retiring, and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, who is running for re-election. Moriarty is maligned by Republicans, who cannot beat his "independent-minded" image in spite of the fact that his voting record is fairly partisan and he's part of the Norcross machine.
Anyway, Moriarty and his new running mate, a 15-year-veteran of the Gloucester Township School Board named Bill Collins, aren't facing a typical Republican slate this year. One Republican nominee, Eugene E.T. Lawrence, was a Democrat until earlier this year, when he basically switched parties in order to run in the general election (although his official reason was his anger at Gov. Corzine for cutting property tax rebates). Lawrence, an African-American who spent five years as a Democrat on the Gloucester Township Council before being defeated for re-election, felt snubbed when the Democratic machine picked Collins earlier this year. In addition to Lawrence, the Republicans have nominated a political neophyte named Dominick DiCicco. Hailing from Franklin Township, DiCicco has a law degree and an MBA; he works for Zurich Financial Services, currently as Chief Legal Officer of North American Claim Operation. He's also got friends in high places, apparently, as former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich saw fit to endorse him earlier this year. How many times has Newt Gingrich endorsed someone in a state legislative race? Not many, I imagine.
All things considered, Lawrence and DiCicco have a lot to overcome - not just the voter registration edge, but the fundraising might of the Norcross machine, which has out-raised them two-to-one thus far. Norcross isn't losing this one if he can help it, but with his slate facing a pair of genuine moderates in an anti-Democratic year, these seats could flip.
Another such district is LD19, a somewhat urban Middlesex County district including Perth Amboy and Woodbridge. This district is currently represented by Assemblymen John Wisniewski of Sayreville and Joe Vas of Perth Amboy. Wisniewski, who's been elected and re-elected since 1995, is one of the most powerful members of the Assembly, chairing the Transportation/Public Works Committee. He more recently made the news by flirting with the prospect of seeking the Speakership next year and, humorously, by boasting about the fact that he didn't accept a bribe from Solomon Dwek, the cooperating witness in this summer's infamous Operation Bid Rig. Good for you, John.
Of course, perhaps I shouldn't poke fun at Wisniewski when he is so clearly the clean one in this delegation. After all, Vas (who was concurrently Mayor of Perth Amboy until he lost his re-election bid in 2008) is facing a plethora of corruption charges from both federal and state authorities. In March 2009, a state grand jury indicted him on eleven counts, including seven counts of official misconduct. In May 2009, a federal grand jury indicted him on eight counts, including six counts of mail fraud. Also in May 2009, a second state grand jury indicted Vas on seventeen further counts. And to top it all off, the feds indicted Vas on one more charge in superseding indictment in July. Through all of this, Vas refuses to resign, although he decides not to seek a second term in office. Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts suspended Vas's salary and benefits and stripped him of his committee assignments, including his Commerce Committee chairmanship. Vas still refuses to resign to this very day.
So the time comes for the Middlesex Democratic machine to pick Vas's successor, and they give the party line to Jack O'Leary, the longtime mayor of the district's smallest city, South Amboy. O'Leary runs unopposed in the primary and appears to be headed for election as the next assemblyman from LD19. Instead, an anonymously authored 82-page document called "The O'Leary Family Crime Syndicate" began circulating, accusing O'Leary of corruption and targeting the mayor's insurance business. O'Leary was investigated by state authorities as well, although he has not been charged with any crime and the attack may very well have been simply a political enemy trying to take him out. Regardless, O'Leary bowed to intraparty pressure and quit the race in August.
Democratic Party boss/actual elected county sheriff Joe Spicuzzo convened party leaders to vote on who to anoint as the new nominee. Party leaders voted to put Craig Coughlin on the ticket. Coughlin is a retired municipal judge who's been municipal attorney for Carteret and Woodbridge, not to mention a South Amboy councilman and a Woodbridge Democratic Party chair. A distinguished resume, no doubt, but one with scarcely any elective office on it. Indeed, instead of a mayor so popular in his hometown that he's been elected and re-elected to that office for two decades, the Middlesex Dems anointed a party insider with lots of political connections in all the district's towns but little to no connection to the actual people of the district.
Even though this is a heavily Democratic district (Dems enjoy a 2-1 registration advantage), the corruption problem and, of course, dissatisfaction with Gov. Corzine have given the GOP newfound hope. One nominee, Richard Piatkowski of Perth Amboy, is a real estate broker probably best known in the political sphere for his run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004, when he was the Republican nominee against then-Congressman (and future Senator) Bob Menendez in the heavily Democratic 13th Congressional District. His running mate, Peter Kothari, is a businessman from Woodbridge who is probably best known as an Indian-American community activist. (In 2006, Kothari denounced the police and the city of Edison for not prosecuting a police officer who allegedly engaged in police brutality while arresting another Indian-American activist for rioting and assault on a police officer. That's not very Republican....) Worst-case scenario from a Democratic perspective: The GOP picks up these two seats, along with all the others mentioned above. I wouldn't put any money on it, though.
All other seats
All other seats should be safe for the incumbents. Other than LD14 (mentioned above), only LD2 has split representation (represented by a pair of Republicans in the Assembly and a Democratic state senator), but it's likely safe for the incumbents. Some excessively optimistic Republicans have also made noise about pickups in LD3 and LD6, which frankly is not going to happen.
I should note that there are also two special elections for the Senate going on: One to fill Congressman John Adler's old seat in a heavily Democratic district and one to fill Congressman Leonard Lance's old seat in a heavily Republican district. Both are safe for the incumbent party.