A look at New Jersey state elections in 2021

January 29, 2021

“Well, it’s Groundhog Day … again.”—Phil Connors

Fans of the movie Groundhog Day will appreciate this quote. For most of the 1 hour and 41 minute movie, Phil Connors, a fictional and cynical weathercaster, is forced to relive Feb. 2 (Groundhog Day) over and over again.

While the date remains the same, Connors chooses his own path for the day and each time, the day he is living is unique and wildly different from the day before, despite the fact that it is always Groundhog Day—(SPOILER ALERT) at least until the end.

Sometimes, it feels that way in New Jersey politics, especially when it comes to elections. It always feels like it’s an election year. Here we are in 2021 … a new year … and guess what, as Phil Connors might say, “Well, it’s an election year … again.”

The dust barely has settled from the 2020 federal elections, but we already have turned our focus to the New Jersey 2021 state elections, and rightfully so, as this is a big one.

On Nov. 2, voters will head to the polls (or vote by mail) to select New Jersey’s next governor, all 80 members of the New Jersey Assembly and 40 state senators.

Gubernatorial election

This past October, Gov. Philip Murphy formally kicked off his re-election campaign for a second term as governor.

Murphy is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee—and as of the writing of this article—he remains the only declared democratic candidate. Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver will run on the same ticket as Murphy, again. It is likely that if challenged in the primary, Murphy and Oliver will win their party’s nomination handily.

The field of Republicans—who are competing in the party’s June primary for the chance to take on Murphy in the November election—is slightly more crowded.

Former New Jersey Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli was the first candidate—Republican or Democrat—to announce his run for governor. County organizations are starting to coalesce around his campaign making him the current Republican frontrunner. Ciattarelli also was a candidate in 2017—he sought, but lost the Republican nomination to then Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Other declared candidates who seek the Republican nomination include:

  • Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine (also a candidate in 2009);
  • Conservative businessman Hirsh Singh (this is Singh’s fifth bid for public office. He previously, and unsuccessfully, sought the Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and for governor); and
  • Actor and entrepreneur Joseph Rudy Rollo (also a primary candidate in 2017).

Comedian Joe Piscopo is rumored to be considering a run as well, but he has yet to declare his intention to run for office.

Doug Steinhardt, a lawyer, a former NJGOP State Committee Chairman and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, withdrew from the race shortly after launching his campaign. He cited personal and professional obligations, but the timing of his withdrawal, shortly after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, may suggest that political considerations played a part as well. Steinhardt’s brief entrance to the race was considered the biggest threat to Ciattarelli’s ability to secure the Republican nomination.

In political terms, New Jersey is considered a strong Blue State, which normally would signal an advantage for the Democratic candidate. However, New Jersey voters have not re-elected a Democrat to a second term as governor since Brendan Byrne in 1977, and Murphy is taking the race seriously. Ciattarelli, historically a moderate Republican, moved right to parry Steinhardt; he now will have to balance his need to appeal to the GOP base with that to connect with the independents and Democrats that he will need to win.

Murphy’s chances at re-election are likely to hinge on how he continues to handle and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of who wins the Republican nomination.

Legislative races

Democrats hold a sizeable majority in both the New Jersey Senate (25 Democrats to 15 Republicans) and New Jersey Assembly (52 Democrats to 28 Republicans). There is virtually no chance that the Democrats will lose their majorities as a result of the November 2021 elections. However, there likely will be changes at the margins, with Republicans possibly picking up seats or Democrats further padding their majority.

Here is a brief look at some of the districts where change is either possible or already certain:

Legislative District 37 (Bergen County). Perhaps the biggest, but not entirely surprising, news related to the 2021 legislative elections was the announcement by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg that she would retire at the end of her term, capping a long and distinguished career as a public servant.

Weinberg turns 86 years old on Feb. 6, 2021, and she is looking to spend more time with her grandchildren. She began her service in the New Jersey Assembly in 1992. The 37th Legislative District is a democratic stronghold and that remains unchanged despite Weinberg’s decision to forego re-election.

Almost immediately after Weinberg made her decision public, both of her Assembly district-mates, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, announced their intention to pursue their party’s nomination.

In the weeks since the announcements, both Johnson and Vainieri Huttle have released long lists of endorsements by local elected officials and issue advocacy groups. The first official step in securing the nomination will be a local party convention in which members of the Democratic Committee of Bergen County will vote for their preferred candidate. The winner will be awarded the party line.

Depending on the result of that county party convention, the candidate who was not awarded the party line can either join the party’s ticket to run again for Assembly, choose to not run for re-election at all, or potentially mount an off-the-line primary challenge for Senate. Both candidates have stated that they are focused on securing their party’s endorsement and they will not consider their next step until after the convention is over, which leaves an off-the-line challenge entirely possible.

Legislative District 21 (Morris County). On Feb. 1, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. revealed that he will not pursue re-election to his Senate seat.  Kean will remain in the Senate and will continue to lead the Senate Republican Caucus until his term expires in January 2022.

Kean challenged and narrowly lost to U.S. Congressman Tom Malinowski in the November 2020 election.  Kean did not have to vacate his state Senate seat to pursue election to Congress.  While Kean’s announcement only applies to his Senate seat, many speculate that he is foregoing re-election at this level, so he can focus exclusively on a second challenge to Congressman Malinowski in November 2022.

Within the district, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick is expected to pursue the open seat left by Kean’s exit, as Bramnick having stated multiple times in the past that he would run for Senate if Kean ever bowed out.  Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, district mate of both Kean and Bramnick, has expressed no interest, at least publicly, with moving from the Assembly to the Senate and will likely run on a ticket headed by Bramnick.

Should Bramnick take the leap to run for the Senate seat, both the Senate and the Assembly will have new leaders in their respective Republican caucuses when the New Jersey Legislature reorganizes in January 2022.  It also could open up a primary contest for the Assembly seat he would be vacating to pursue election to the Senate.

Legislative District 16 (much of Somerset and parts of surrounding counties). Longtime Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman announced that he too will retire from the Senate at the end of his term, citing the need to recover from a recent heart surgery as the primary reason.

The 16th Legislative District has become increasingly competitive and holds the unique distinction as being one of New Jersey’s split representation districts (meaning the senator of the district and at least one, if not both, of the Assembly members belong to different parties). Bateman is a Republican. While both Assembly members in the district are Democrats.

It was widely predicted that Bateman—should he have chosen to pursue re-election—would have faced a difficult challenge from one of the two Democratic Assembly members representing the same district. In recent months, both Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Assemblyman Roy Freiman have expressed interest in challenging Bateman in the general election (prior to learning of Bateman’s decision to retire at the end of his term).

However, earlier this week, Freiman indicated that he will likely run for re-election to the Assembly and will work to get Zwicker elected to the Senate, thus avoiding a primary fight.

With Bateman and Freiman choosing to not run for the Senate seat, Assemblyman Zwicker quickly becomes the odds-on favorite.

Legislative District 20 (Union County). In early January, Democratic Assemblyman Jamel Holley began informing his supporters that he plans to challenge his district-mate and incumbent Democratic Sen. Joseph Cryan for Senate. Cryan will likely have the county committee’s support meaning Holley’s candidacy for his party’s nomination will almost certainly be off the line. A formal announcement from Holley is expected sometime in mid-February.

As it stands today, Cryan is well-positioned to be successful in the primary. He is an experienced legislator, campaigner and fundraiser, and as mentioned, he has the support of the party infrastructure behind him. Holley has established himself as a vocal anti-vaccine lawmaker and, as such, he has earned the support of a well-funded and passionate constituency—while losing the support of party leaders frustrated at Holley’s role in stymying pro-vaccine legislation.

Legislative District 39 (Bergen County). Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi is mulling a primary challenge against district-mate and fellow Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale. Considered a rising star in both Bergen County GOP and state Republican circles, Schepisi says that she’s being encouraged by her family, friends, local political leaders and constituents to consider making a run for the Senate.

Cardinale, who is 86 years old and has been in the Senate for 12 terms, has no intention to step back and is pursuing the Bergen GOP’s nomination.

Should Schepisi challenge Cardinale, they would both compete for the party line as part of the Bergen GOP’s screening process at their convention in March. The candidate who does not receive the line can opt to rejoin the ticket as an Assembly candidate (unlikely for Cardinale), decide to not seek re-election or mount an off-the-line primary challenge.

Legislative District 13 (Monmouth County). The leadership of the Monmouth County GOP is rumored to be recruiting a potential Assembly candidate against two-term incumbent Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso.

DiMaso has all intentions of returning to the Assembly and running alongside her district-mates Sen. Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger in the general election.

However, Monmouth GOP Chairman Shaun Golden may have other plans.

DiMaso’s and Golden’s history of endorsing different Republican candidates on the local level within the 13th Legislative District is thought to be the basis for this potential move by the Monmouth GOP. No replacement candidate has been named yet. If the Monmouth GOP endorses a different candidate, Assemblywoman DiMaso could pursue an off-the-line challenge, forcing a contest in the primary.

Time will tell

Nine months is a lifetime in politics. One thing is for certain, there will be no shortage of intrigue between now and Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

In the meantime, you can help your association make a difference. Don’t forget to make a donation to your NJPIAPAC online or by mailing in a donation form. Your state PAC uses your donations to contribute to legislative candidates who are supportive of our industry generally, and issues important to independent agents in particular.

Adam Guziejewski
Katz Government Affairs | + posts

Adam Guziejewski is senior director of Government Affairs for Katz Government Affairs. He is a seasoned government and public affairs and association management professional, most recently serving as the deputy executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. Adam brings 15 years of demonstrated government affairs success to Katz Government Affairs—including a history of collaborating with influential public policy makers and developing legislative and political priorities and strategies. Adam earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University and he has completed the New Leaders Council–New Jersey’s Fellowship Program. He is a current member of the NLC-NJ Advisory Board, a former member of the NLC-NJ Executive Board and served a 10-year stint on the NEW JOBS PAC Board of Trustees.

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