Big Spending By Republicans Buys Small Lead In 16th District Assembly Race — Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Written by
Sergio Bichao

How much is a seat in the state Assembly worth? If campaign spending is any indicator, quite a bit.

Republicans and their supporters almost hit the half-million-dollar mark backing Assemblywoman Donna Simon's bid for an unexpired seat from the 16th Legislative District.

Simon's campaign raised nearly $381,000 for the general election contest, according to most recent filings with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. And more than $109,000 was spent on her behalf by the bipartisan education reform group Better Education for N.J. Kids, or B4K — bringing the total to $490,000.

In comparison, Simon's Democratic challenger, Marie Corfield, raised about $173,000.

However, the election results, which still were being counted a week after the election, were not as lopsided. Simon led Corfield by just 1,702 votes, according to the most recent figures released by clerks in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties.

"It's no secret that our district was made much more competitive in redistricting," Somerset County Republican Chairman Al Gaburo said Tuesday.

The district used to be entirely in Republican-leaning Somerset County. But redistricting last year added more conservative municipalities in Hunterdon County as well as Democrat-heavy South Brunswick in Middlesex and Princeton in Mercer. Democrats in Somerset also have maintained an edge among registered voters since the 2008 election.

"The Republican Party wanted to make sure they were protecting an incumbent, and there are different counties in the 16th Legislative District who don't necessarily know our candidates," Gaburo said Tuesday. "In this case, it takes significant resources to get the message out when you're in the middle of a presidential election. I think the party spent wisely in Donna Simon, and the final results bear that out."

Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman Peg Schaffer said the close results prove her organization was right to believe Corfield could have pulled an upset win, but it was too bad that statewide Democrats didn't invest more in Corfield's campaign.

"Early polls showed an uphill battle," Schaffer said. "The decision by those who might have bankrolled the campaign was that the chances of success were slim."

The special election was to determine who would fill the unexpired seat of the late Assemblyman Peter J. Biondi, who died days after his re-election last year. The winner will serve just a year before having to go before voters again.

Simon served on the Readington Township Committee before she was appointed to the Assembly seat. Corfield, a teacher in the Flemington-Raritan school district, champions teachers union causes. Each campaign had tried to identify their candidate as an independent voice.

Last year, the Republicans raised $386,200 and spent $254,962 re-electing Biondi, state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. The Democrats raised $240,538 for their challenge.

Simon's campaign received large support from the state GOP ($109,128) as well as the Assembly Republican Victory fund ($63,445). She also got financial backing from several trade groups and companies, including Johnson & Johnson ($1,000), Maersk ($1,400), the N.J. Business Industry Association ($2,350) and the N.J. Liquor Store Alliance ($1,500).

She also received $2,600 from Robert Mitchell, the chief executive officer of Atlantic Wind Connection, which wants to build a wind-power transmission line off the coasts of New Jersey and New York City.

Corfield enjoyed the financial support of labor unions, including the N.J. Education Association ($8,200), N.J. State Federation of Teachers ($1,000) and the N.J. State Policemen's Benevolent Association ($2,600).

B4K, a New Brunswick-based nonprofit group, has a political action committee that can spend in support of or opposition to candidates as long as the PAC does not coordinate with any campaign. Unlike campaigns, PACs do not have to identify their donors to the state. But as a "527" group under the federal tax code, it must identify its contributors in public filings with the IRS.

Executive Director Michael Lilley said Simon was "pro-education reform," including backing the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a proposed voucher program that would assist parents in some of the poorest school districts to afford private schools. The legislation is opposed by the NJEA.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of N.J. Citizens Action, which backs public financing of elections and endorsed Corfield, said the race was a "poster child of why we need publicly funded campaigns."

"Of course money matters," she said. "I would much rather have candidates participate in a level playing field. This is not a level playing field. They should be elected on whether people support their positions, not on how many calls or mailers or whatever the money buys."

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