Our 2023 Legislative Ratings: New Jersey

In addition to covering the gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, we at Split Ticket will be rating state legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia. Today’s analysis offers an early look at the key primary and general election contests for the Assembly and Senate in the Garden State. Both chambers of Virginia’s legislature will be touched on in a secondary article next week.


The Process

New Jersey’s State Senate and Assembly districts are based on the same decennially-redistricted 40-seat legislative map, with the lower chamber electing two candidates from each district instead of one for a total of 80 members. 

While district numbers sometimes correspond to different geographic regions over time, legislative apportionment has remained constant since voters approved a 1966 referendum on state constitutional changes that addressed Reynolds v. Sims by abolishing county-based allocations of senate seats ahead of the 1973 legislative elections.

Assemblypeople come up for election every two years, just like members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Senators normally serve four-year terms but hold office for two years at the start of every decade (e.g., 2001, 2003, 2007, 2011; 2021, 2023, 2027, 2031). Because the New Jersey Senate isn’t staggered by class, this process ensures that senate elections follow the same consistent cycle each decade.

Important History

The Garden State usually hosts a handful of competitive legislative races each cycle, but Democratic control of the State Assembly and Senate has been more or less secure since both chambers last changed hands in the 2001 and 2003 elections, respectively. 

With a few exceptions, legislative Democrats have steadily increased their assembly majority every two years, decreasing the Republican share of the 80-seat chamber from 48% after 2003 to just 33% following 2017.

Republicans seriously contested the Senate in 2013, but intraparty squabbling between Governor Chris Christie and Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. over which districts to target helped Democrats hold their 24-16 majority despite Christie’s concurrent landslide reelection. 

2021 proved to be an unexpectedly good year for New Jersey Republicans, who held Governor Phil Murphy to a close race and undid Democrats’ 2017 gains by netting seats in both legislative chambers despite expectations to the contrary.


Mirroring the federal system, New Jersey redraws its 40-seat legislative map following each decennial U.S. Census. The exception being 2021, when complications related to the coronavirus pandemic led New Jersey and Virginia to use their old legislative districts for one extra election cycle. The Garden State’s non-partisan legislative redistricting commission has since drawn new lines for the 2023 elections. 

Unlike the state’s congressional redistricting commission, which adopted a map skewed toward the Democrats on questionable grounds, the legislative redistricting commission led by judge Philip Carchman ended up producing a fair map that throws bones to both parties. You can read about the detailed rules and regulations governing New Jersey’s redistricting commissions here.

Important Electoral Developments (Senate, Assembly)

Who’s Retiring?

As of this writing, 16 members of the legislature have announced retirement: 4 senators and 12 assemblypeople. Six of those retirees are seeking another political office, including two assemblymen running for seats in the upper chamber. Most expect this group to expand as remaining filing deadlines near. Democratic Senators Sandra Cunningham and Fred Madden are just two examples of lawmakers on retirement watch.

The biggest surprise on the departure list so far is Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), who declined to seek reelection to the heavily-Republican 24th district after more than a decade in office. 

His likely replacement as leader of the GOP’s Senate caucus is Tony Bucco Jr., who represents the more marginal 25th district. Parker Space, one of the 24th’s retiring assemblymen, is the favorite to replace Oroho.

Republicans Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) and Chris Connors (R-Forked River) are also leaving the Senate come next year. Stanfield, originally Burlington County Sheriff, defeated party-switching Democratic incumbent Dawn Marie Addiego (NJ-08) in 2021’s closest State Senate race. Republicans are initial favorites to hold the slightly-redder, redrawn version of the seat. 

Connors’ Ocean County-based district is safe Republican. Between Chris and his father Leonard, the 9th has been represented by a member of the Connors family consistently since 1981. Carmen Amato, the popular Mayor of Berkeley Township, one of the largest in the district, is heavily favored to become the next senator

Retirements have arguably affected the assembly’s playing field even more. 14th District Democrat Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) is leaving the legislature to challenge sitting Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. Though his seat is reliably Democratic, it hasn’t had an assembly opening in over a decade. 

Developments in the competitive 16th district were more shocking, with Democrat Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery) giving up her assembly seat after just one term in office. Ex-Congressman Tom Malinowski’s district director Mitchelle Drulis seems favored to secure Democratic nomination to replace Jaffer.

Double-Bunkings and Redistricting Carnage

Perhaps nowhere in New Jersey are political games of musical chairs more common than in Hudson County, home to one of the country’s most tight-knit local Democratic organizations. 

There, to an even greater extent than elsewhere in the Garden State, the county line is tantamount to God, parochial concerns have top-down influence, and personal agreements are followed to the letter. In other words, personal ambition is often subsumed by party loyalty.

One prominent Hudson County Democratic shakeup occurred in 2021, when Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis selected union crane operator William Sampson as his preferred assembly candidate in the 31st district over incumbent Nicholas Chiaravalotti, who dropped out of the race soon after. 

As New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein notes, Bayonne mayors are entitled to pick an assembly candidate for the county Democratic organization pursuant to a ‘treaty’ negotiated between the municipal Democratic parties by Bob Menendez in the 1990s.

All three Hudson County Democrats representing the old 32nd district got the short end of the stick this year thanks in part to redistricting. Senator Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) was drawn into the same new district as his formidable colleague Brian Stack (D-Union City), dubbed the GOTV king, leading him to announce he would retire from the Senate to run for another term as Mayor of North Bergen. Outgoing assembly members Angelica Jimenez and Pedro Mejia likewise failed to secure the county organization’s support.

One prominent double-bunking could also be brewing in the new 27th district, now home to senators Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and Nia Gill (D-Montclair). Codey, a former acting governor and the longest serving legislator in New Jersey history, would be favored against Gill if the latter were to run. 

Multiple Republican Lawmakers Face Credible Primary Challenges

Numerous Republican lawmakers are also being seriously challenged for renomination this cycle, including three Senators, one of whom recently joined the Democrats because of it. Challengers running for the upper chamber tend to form tickets with their preferred assembly candidates to help compete for county organizational lines in all or part of their districts. 

Perhaps the most high-profile challenge to a senate Republican this cycle is taking place in the 3rd district, home to Ed Durr (R-Logan). The former truck driver’s sudden rise to power in 2021 is now part of Jersey political lore. 

Despite his campaign’s limited funds and lacking organization, Durr defeated Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney on the coattails of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli’s landslide victory in South Jersey.

Durr’s primary opponent this year is Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum (R-Pilesgrove), a popular officeholder in the 3rd district’s second-most populous county who outpolled him there in 2021.

Ostrum is running with Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich) and Adam Wingate (R-Harrison). Bethanne McCarthy Patrick, the seat’s other assemblywoman, is seeking reelection on a slate with Durr and Tom Tedesco (R-Hopewell).

Ostrum is expected to receive the county line in Salem, where he should win comfortably. Durr lives in Gloucester, which should function as his base in the primary whether he gets the line there or not. 

While Ostrum is a stronger candidate than Durr on paper, the Gloucester portion of the district accounts for most of its population and, despite being the bluest part of the 3rd, cast more votes for Trump and Ciattarelli than the rest of the seat combined. That’s why we aren’t counting Durr out in the primary just yet.

In the Morris-Passaic 26th district, Republican Senator Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) faces Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo, an underdog who has won off of the organizational line before

Like Ostrum, Mastrangelo will probably select assembly candidates to accompany him on the ballot. Former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) is running again after being denied the Morris County line and losing her primary in 2021.

Ocean County Republicans Brian Rumpf (R-Little Egg Harbor) and DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) are both at risk of losing renomination to their assembly seats in the 9th district – Senator Connors is retiring. Six contenders are challenging the incumbents, including Stafford Mayor Greg Myhre and ex-Barnegat Mayor John Novak, both of whom could win the Ocean County line on Monday.

We’ll have at least one more deep-dive analyzing the key races ahead of the June 6th primary. Until fields materialize, filing deadlines pass, and county line endorsements are doled out, though, we must make educated guesses about which candidates will secure nominations.

Top Races (Senate, Assembly)

LD-02 (Atlantic) (Biden +12, Ciattarelli +7)

Senate Leans R, Assembly Leans R

Atlantic County voters may generally prefer Democratic candidates, but they aren’t afraid to split their tickets for the right Republicans. The redrawn 2nd district, slightly bluer than its predecessor, leans Democratic but is also trending rightward like the county as a whole. 

With the Democratic candidate slate undetermined, we feel comfortable starting Senator Vince Polistina and assemblymen Donald Guardian and Claire Swift off as favorites for reelection. All three have wisely followed independent paths in the legislature, even voting for Governor Murphy’s last budget proposal.

LD-03 (Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland) (Trump +3, Ciattarelli +16)

Senate Likely R, Assembly Likely R

Democrats’ fate in the 3rd district, an Obama-Trump seat, depends on whether South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross can convince Steve Sweeney to run again

Neutral environment or not, a proven overperformer like Sweeney would be able to mobilize enough down-ballot lag to run a close race should he decide to run, especially against Durr (assuming he wins renomination). 

But with the Democratic field still uncertain and a contentious Republican primary on the horizon, we are looking at baseline partisanship and starting the 3rd off at Likely Republican.

LD-04 (Gloucester, Camden) (Biden +7, Ciattarelli +6)

Senate Tossup, Assembly Leans D

The Republican-trending 4th district got redder in redistricting, which could end up making veteran Democratic Senator Fred Madden even more likely to retire. Until 2021, Madden hadn’t faced a remotely competitive race since his 63-vote win over Republican George Geist in 2001. 

A silent exit as Gloucester County Democratic Party chairman and currently anemic fundraising numbers suggest that Madden, who has fooled the public into thinking he would retire in the past, finally realizes that his district is catching up to him. 

On the assumption that Madden will end his career on a high note, we’re starting his seat off at Tossup. Incumbent assembly members Paul Moriarty and Gabriela Mosquera enter Leans D races, though Moriarty may run for an open senate seat.

LD-08 (Burlington, Atlantic) (Biden +5, Ciattarelli +9)

Senate Leans R, Assembly Leans R

Although it saw the most contested state senate election of 2021, the 8th district might end up on the backburner this cycle. Redistricting made the seat more Republican and popular Senator Jean Stanfield’s retirement hasn’t impacted GOP candidate recruitment at all. 

Latham Tiver, a former Burlington freeholder and union business representative, is an early favorite to hold this Democratic-trending seat. Democrats have tossed around the idea of running former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski for the 8th, but he is a registered Republican who backed Trump twice and has connections to election deniers. Until Democrats solidify a candidate slate, Republicans should be favored to hold the 8th’s senate and assembly seats. 

LD-11 (Monmouth) (Biden +13, Ciattarelli +2)

Senate Leans D, Assembly Tossup

One of the Republicans’ better senate targets is the 11th, a Monmouth County seat represented by rising star Vin Gopal. A formidable Democrat, Gopal stimulated enough crossover voting to hold his old seat even as it voted for Ciattarelli and elected Republicans Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno to the assembly in 2021. 

Gopal is formidable enough to start out as a favorite for reelection, but the fact that the state GOP plans on investing a lot of time and money in businessman Steve Dnistrian’s campaign should allow Republicans to keep the race competitive. Eulner and Piperno’s chances against Margie Donlon and Luanne Peterpaul are more uncertain.

LD-12 (Monmouth, Burlington, Middlesex, Ocean) (Trump +14, Ciattarelli +27)

Senate Safe R (flip)

The most vulnerable Democratic senator, assuming he secures renomination, is also the newest member of the party’s caucus: Samuel Thompson. A two-time Trump supporter and conservative Republican, Thompson recently switched parties to avoid a primary challenge from Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry. He only slightly outran Ciattarelli in 2021 and is highly unlikely to win reelection in what is one of the redder seats in New Jersey.

LD-16 (Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex) (Biden +21, Murphy +5)

Senate Leans D, Assembly Leans D

Represented by Andrew Zwicker, who succeeded moderate Republican Kip Bateman in 2021, the 16th district (it includes Princeton) is a good example of a well-educated Democratic-trending seat that Republicans can still compete for due to down-ballot lag.

The GOP nominee is once again Mike Pappas, a former congressman famous for singing “twinkle, twinkle Kenneth Starr” on the House floor before losing reelection. Though Pappas was sidelined by coronavirus during the final stretch of the 2021 campaign, and the redrawn 16th is a bit redder than its predecessor, his 6 point loss makes it hard for us to consider Zwicker anything other than a favorite regardless of the political environment. 

LD-21 (Somerset, Union, Middlesex, Morris) (Biden +17, Ciattarelli +0.3)

Senate Leans R, Assembly Leans R

The 21st district, primarily encompassing the well-educated, affluent suburbs of Somerset and Union counties, is the historical powerhouse of New Jersey’s moderate Republican base. Despite its increasingly-Democratic federal partisanship, down-ballot lag and crossover voting enable Republicans to keep winning at the local level.

Popular incumbent Jon Bramnick, a principled moderate who oversees one of the finest constituent service operations in the state, has not faced a serious Democratic challenge before. In 2021, under the old district lines, Bramnick won by 7 points as Governor Murphy carried the 21st. The seat also got redder in redistricting, making him a stronger favorite for reelection.

LD-38 (Bergen) (Biden +14, Murphy +5)

Senate Likely D, Assembly Likely D

The comfortably-Democratic 38th district starts off at Likely Democratic out of an abundance of caution. Democratic Senator Joseph Lagana only won by 6 points in 2021 against an underfunded Republican as Ciattarelli carried his seat.

Trends have been good for the GOP in more working class parts of the district, especially those with comparatively high Hispanic populations, like Saddle Brook and Lodi. Democrats have gained ground in communities with higher average educational attainment like Glen Rock and Oradell.

While Republicans are willing to invest resources here, they currently have no candidate and the political environment will probably be bluer than it was in both 2021 and 2022. That’s why all three incumbent Democrats are still comfortably favored in the 38th.


Other potentially-competitive seats currently rated safe, including ruby red LD-30, where some members of Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish community purportedly want to elect Democrat Avi Schnall to the Assembly, will be addressed in more detail in future write-ups should they come into play.

Overall Conclusions (Senate, Assembly)

It’s still too early to determine just what the political environment will look like in New Jersey this fall, but there’s compelling evidence suggesting underlying conditions will be much better for Democrats than they were in 2021. President Biden and Governor Murphy have both enjoyed rising approval ratings over the last few weeks after a better-than-expected midterm for national Democrats last November.

In other words, a neutral environment would make it harder for state Republicans to expand their majority and nearly impossible to flip the senate outright – doing so would force the GOP to carry “reach” districts like the 14th, 36th, and 38th in addition to the winnable, Democratic-leaning, 11th and 16th. 

Even though the most likely outcome for Republicans in both chambers is currently holding on to all of their seats without posting large net gains, the state GOP still plans on seriously competing for the senate majority this fall. 

Our ratings will update to reflect possible changes to the political environment, but for now we are comfortable saying Democrats are strong initial favorites to maintain legislative control in the Garden State.

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