Rooney’s N.J. Election 2016 Race Ratings

New Jersey doesn’t have a sexy statewide gubernatorial or senate race for the media to cover in 2016, Save Jerseyans. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of interesting federal and down-ballot contests worth watching when New Jersey voters head to the polls in just under four weeks….

The following list is NOT exhaustive.

These are my top picks for political nerds to track on Election Night (and how I seem them going as of today), both in terms of competitiveness AND importance:

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NJ-05 House Race: Scott Garrett (i) vs. Josh Gottheimer

Gottheimer (left) and Garrett (right)
Gottheimer (left) and Garrett (right)

Unfortunately, this is the race most likely to feature a major shake-up.  It’s a mirror of Republican troubles nationally and the #1 race I’ll be watching on Election Night.

The conservative stalwart Rep. Scott Garrett (who’s served in Congress since 2003) is attempting to weather his first genuine general election challenge from Josh Gottheimer, a member of the Clinton Family’s extended circle. The notorious House Majority PAC – a Democrat front group – has dumped $1.5 million into the district since June. Meanwhile, traditional pro-Garrett groups including lean-GOP bundlers in the financial sector haven’t been giving at their normal clip. The Left’s attacks have been relentless and highly personal; just yesterday, a Democrat State Senator asked authorities to investigate Garrett over alleged “ties” to a domestic terror group. Admittedly, some of Garrett’s problems were engendered by unforced errors.

BTW – I handicapped the race for WNYC Radio back in September. Donald Trump’s fortunes here and elsewhere have darkened considerably since that interview which undoubtedly impacts down-ballot races everywhere, especially in blue-ish states like our own. NJ-05 is still undeniably reddish but redistricting brought in more Bergen County towns that are less reliably Republican (or straight-up trending Democrat).

Rooney’s Race Rating: Toss Up 

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Monmouth County Freeholder Race: Tom Arnone (i) and Serena DiMaso (i) vs. Matt Doherty and Sue Fulton

Golden (left) and Arnone (right)
Golden (left) and Arnone (right)

Arguably, this county race is New Jersey’s most important 2016 contest. It’s hard to understate the importance of this relatively populous 630,380-strong Jersey Shore county to state politics.

GOP-leaning but heavily populated by educated professionals and retirees, it wasn’t that long ago that Democrats had a strong presence in county government. The county – home to presumptive 2017 Democrat gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy – is the GOP’s statewide firewall. Enter Democrats Matt Doherty (the ethically-challenged mayor of Belmar) and his running mate, Sue Fulton, who are backed up by Doherty’s wife Maggie Moran (the former campaign manager for Jon Corzine) and the Democrat establishment she represents. Every Democrat heavyweight has visited the county to campaign and raise cash; they just went up on TV with a six-figure ad buy. Will it make a dent? Maybe, but insiders expect the GOP ticket led by popular Sheriff Shaun Golden to prevail. Remember: even Mitt Romney won here with 52% of the vote despite losing New Jersey at-large by nearly 20-points.

If Republicans lose? Democrat money will pour into Monmouth in 2017 when Phil Murphy will be the front runner to succeed Chris Christie with the aim of taking control of county government away from the Republicans. That’s potentially big trouble for Jennifer Beck, the GOP state senator who lost both of her running mates in 2015, and other Monmouth Republican legislators, too.

FYI – If you’re not already reading Art Gallagher’s MoreMonmouthMusings? Start. No one covers that county better (or drives the Democrats crazier) than my old pal Art. He’s supplanted The Asbury Park Press as Monmouth’s leading source for breaking political news. #NewMediaTriumph

Rooney’s Race Rating: Lean Republican

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N.J. Presidential RaceDonald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton

trump clinton debateTwo recent polls found Donald Trump running surprisingly well (down by only single digit margins) to Hillary Clinton in the Garden State.

It’s not THAT surprising. Republicans often poll well here until the bitter end, and I do mean bitter; George W. Bush flirted with the state in 2004 only to lose by 6-7 points in November. That was the closest any Republicans has gotten here since 1988 when Bush’s father beat Michael Dukakis. New Jersey hasn’t voted for a state-wide Republican federal candidate – for Senate or President – since the 1970s before I was born, folks.

Given that bleak electoral history, and with Trump losing ground nationally in the wake of Tape-gate? Tied or behind in former GOP strongholds like North Carolina and Colorado? Don’t expect to see a meaningful campaign investment here any time soon. Sadly, New Jersey’s 14 electoral votes won’t decide this one.

Rooney’s Race Rating: Safe Democrat

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NJ-07 House RaceLeonard Lance (i) vs. Peter Jacob

Leonard Lance
Lance

The affable incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance, a veteran of Trenton before heading to Congress back in 2008 and a close ally of House Speaker Paul Ryan, knows how to mount an effective campaign and has smartly followed his party to the political right on economic issues.

His constituent services operation is legendary. His positions are always well thought-out if not a tad on the wonkish side. He’s been a frequent interviewee for this site and we’ve always appreciated his willingness to interface with new media and subject himself to voters’ scrutiny.

After having survived a perennial primary challenge in resounding fashion back in the spring, Lance now faces off against newcomer Democrat Peter Jacob, a shrill millennial who’s hoping to get by this cycle on Trump-bashing and race-baiting (even SaveJersey.com is in this loser’s cross hairs) in a district that both Mitt Romney and John McCain managed to carry despite suffering dramatic state-wide losses to Barack Obama. We see no evidence thus far that it’s working or changing the fundamental lean-GOP dynamics of this district.

Rooney’s Race Rating: Safe Republican

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NJ-03 House RaceTom MacArthur vs. Fred LaVergne

tom macarthur
MacArthur

On paper at least, THIS should be New Jersey’s most competitive congressional seat.

It’s not in reality. President Obama carried the district in 2012 when former Rep. Jon Runyan (R) beat Shelley Adler (D) by nearly 9-points. Democrats have only one the seat ONCE since Reconstruction, back in 2008, when Adler’s late husband held the district seat for one term. GOP strength here is due in large part to the district’s composition; Ocean County is deeply red, and lean-blue Burlington County (like Ocean) is led by a robust and dominant Republican organization. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party in both counties in nearly nonexistent. There are a lot of reasons for this unusual confluence of factors but explaining it all would take up too much time.

In any event, first term incumbent Tom MacArthur has masterfully built coalitions with veterans and non-public sector labor groups in the district. The best Democrats could come up with for a challenger? Frederick LaVergne, a liberal gadfly whose crazy personal history and past legal troubles highlight how far NJ-03 Democrats have fallen since John Adler was defeated in 2010.

It probably won’t be close in November even if Hillary Clinton carries the district. The only reason this district isn’t ‘safe’ is because, as we already mentioned, Burlington County tends to vote leftward in presidential cycles meaning Ocean needs to turn out solidly to make up the gap. More on Burlco below…

Rooney’s Race Rating: Strong Republican

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Bergen County Freeholder Race: Maura DeNicola (i), John J. Driscoll Jr. and Robert A. DiDio vs. Tom Sullivan, Mary Amoroso, and Germaine Ortizall

John Driscoll
John Driscoll

As is the case in Monmouth County (see above), this year’s Bergen Sheriff’s race isn’t considered particularly competitive but the freeholder board is a very different story.

One major distinction: the Bergen GOP still isn’t as healthy as their Jersey Shore counterparts. The long slide at the county level hasn’t arrested since former County Executive Kathe Donovan went down in 2014. A change in leadership brought about by Paul DiGaetano’s much-discussed June chairmanship conquest gave the group a much-needed shot in the arm but rebuilding, if that’s indeed what happens, always takes time.

In the interim, one incumbent GOP freeholder (John Felice) decided against reelection and the incumbent sheriff (Mike Saudino) switched parties. That’s a lot to weather in any cycle let alone one which should see Hillary Clinton carry the county. What’s more, the Bergen Democrat organization is well-heeled and well organized. The real risk: a complete Republican shut-out from county offices for the first time in a long time with three at-large seats (two of which are the last remaining GOP seats) on the line. Those watching closet see one seat of three seats going Dem with the other two’s final fate still hotly in contention.

Rooney’s Race Rating: Lean Democrat (D+2)

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Bergen County Clerk’s Race: Hector Olmo vs. John Hogan (i)

Hector Olmo
Hector Olmo

Hector Olmo is impressing veteran Bergen County politicos with his ferocious campaigning for himself and on behalf of those running for the three constitutional offices.

Taken together with the fact that incumbent John Hogan is widely considered the weakest link on the Democrat ticket this year and yeah, if there’s a pleasant surprise in Bergen this November, this one is likely to be it. Stay tuned.

Rooney’s Race Rating: Toss Up

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Salem County Freeholder Race: Julie Acton (i) and Cordy Taylor vs. Lee Ware (i) and Earl Gage

Julie Acton
Julie Acton

Way down South at the opposite end of the N.J. Turnpike, Salem Republicans have a 6-1 majority on the Salem County Freeholder Board but New Jersey’s least populous county is fickle in presidential cycles.

Last year? The race was so close that the Superior Court had to intervene and a vacancy results from the single-digit margin contest. Freeholder Director Julie Acton has juice but the Dem challengers are running hard; in fact, they just secured the FOP’s backing.

Rooney’s Race Rating: Toss Up

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