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Legislative Election Outlook

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Courier-Post, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune.

The entire New Jersey Legislature is up for election this November; all 40 seats in the Senate and 80 seats in the General Assembly.  This means that control of the legislature is up for grabs.  Voters will decide whether to endorse the current configuration of state government – with split party control between the legislature and the governor – or call for a new direction by handing control of both branches of government to the Republican party.

You may think that.  And bless your heart if you do.  But you would be wrong.

Yes, Democrats and Republicans are competing for nearly every seat in the legislature except two.  [As of this writing, a federal court has ordered Democrat Carl Lewis’ name off the 8th district Senate ballot and there is only one Republican running for the two available Assembly seats in the 20th district.]   Another 26 independent candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, as well.  But at the end of the day, no more than 130 out of 264 candidates on the ballot have a realistic shot at being sworn in as one of New Jersey’s 120 legislators.

The recently instituted legislative map drawn up during the redistricting process this spring made sure of that.  The new map turned out to be a boon for incumbents, but it offers little choice for voters.

That means only three districts are generally considered to be competitive this year.  These include the 2nd district 2 in Atlantic County, which has a Democrat in the Senate and two Republicans in the Assembly, and two Democratic-held districts – the 14th in Mercer and Middlesex and the 38th in Bergen.

Because of this overall lack of competitiveness, the 2011 mid-term election is not going to be a referendum on Governor Christie in the traditional sense.  Certainly, the governor’s policies form the backdrop for the election and he will be a potent presence, particularly when it comes to raising campaign contributions.  But there will be no coordinated, statewide effort to base campaign strategy on a single message around the governor.

Campaigns in the few competitive districts will be fought on local issues.  The governor will be a presence to the extent he impacts those local issues.  So in the 2nd, state control of the Atlantic City Tourism District will predominate.  In the 14th, home to a large number of state workers, the focus will be on pension and benefit reforms.

There have been some murmurs that a greater number of districts are at play this year simply because many voters are new to their districts.  For example, shifts in voter registration caused by redistricting have given some hope for additional seats.  These include GOP-held districts 8, 11, and 16, where Democrats outnumber Republicans on the registration rolls by 4,500, 10,100, and 5,300 voters, respectively.  However, past voting history makes any Democratic pick-ups here unlikely.

Districts where Democrats have no more than a 10,000 voter registration edge are considered to be pretty safe bets for the GOP.  Senator Jim Whelan in District 2 is considered more threatened this year in part because his district went from an 11,000 to a 9,200 Democratic registration advantage with the new map.

Republicans, on the other hand, win practically every district where their party has more registered voters than the Democrats.  District 1 is the only exception.  Despite being outnumbered on the voter rolls in the state’s southernmost district, the relatively conservative incumbent Senator Jeff Van Drew has proven coattails and will likely lead his two Democratic Assembly mates to victory again this year.

Democrats really need to have at least a 20,000 voter registration advantage before they can start counting their Election Day chickens.  District 7 is one exception, where Republican State Senator Diane Allen has been able to turn her individual popularity into easy wins in a heavily Democratic district, but without coattails for her Assembly running mates.

This threshold is one of the reasons why District 38 is now considered competitive for Republicans.  The Democratic registration advantage here dropped from nearly 22,000 voters to just over 12,000 under the new map.  On the other hand, this is also the reason why District 14 may not be as competitive as Republicans had hoped – registered Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans by 21,000 voters here.

So we are left with an election where turnout will be decidedly low.  The Democrats’ 8 seat majority in the Senate and 14 seat majority in the Assembly will not change by more than a couple of seats in each chamber, if at all.

The direction New Jersey government was heading before the election is likely to be the same direction it continues along afterward.  For good or for ill.