TRENTON, N.J. – Democrats and unions, fearful that a landslide victory by Gov. Chris Christie will reshape New Jersey’s political landscape, have poured tens of millions of dollars into a record-breaking outside spending campaign that has transformed the state’s election season.
The effort, designed to preserve Democrats’ dominance of the State Legislature and complicate Christie’s plans to build a record of legislative achievement as he considers a presidential bid, has inundated some legislative districts with millions of dollars in negative ads on a scale never before seen in New Jersey.
As of last Thursday, according to the state’s election law enforcement board, outside spending on candidate races had topped $35 million, twice the amount spent when Christie was elected in 2009 and the highest recorded by any state except California.
The surge of spending is likely to be replicated around the country next year, as outside groups from both parties signal increasing interest in influencing state-level contests.
The New Jersey campaign marks one of the most aggressive efforts Democrats have mounted anywhere to exploit the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which eradicated limits on fundraising for outside groups. New Jersey underscores the decision’s continuing ripple effect, as legal challenges mount in the few states remaining that still limit independent expenditures.
Last month, a federal appeals court lifted New York’s limit on contributions to state-level super PACs there, following a lawsuit from a prominent Republican donor. But in New Jersey, a similar legal challenge was led by a Democratic group called the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, which won a federal lawsuit in July to overturn state limits on checks to independent groups.
The group, run by veterans of the Democrats’ successful super PACs from the 2012 election, has since raised millions of dollars, much of it from New Jersey teacher and carpenter unions. They have also been aided by George Norcross III, a South Jersey Democratic power broker who has maintained an informal alliance with Christie in recent years but who also has close ties to the New Jersey Senate leader, Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat.
With Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, trailing far behind in polls for Tuesday’s election, Democrats fear a Christie landslide would tilt enough seats to strengthen the governor’s influence in the Legislature.
Democrats have held both houses of the Legislature for more than a decade, with a 24-16 majority in the State Senate and a 48-32 majority in the General Assembly. But because several Democratic senators routinely vote with the governor, party leaders fear a shift of just a few seats could give the Christie a governing majority in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
The Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, along with an affiliated nonprofit group, the General Growth Fund, have poured $8 million into nine legislative districts where Republicans are trying to capitalize on Christie’s expected coattails. By contrast, in 2011, independent spending on legislative races totaled just $1.8 million.
This year, state officials said, the Fund for Jobs and other outside groups have largely taken over much of the political work traditionally performed by political parties in New Jersey, using unlimited dollars to do polling and strategy. Part of the fund’s budget for New Jersey will go to an effort called The Turnout Project, where Democrats and unions are using super PACs to finance and coordinate Election Day get-out-the-vote activity.
The combined effort was designed in part to relieve some of the internal schisms and competition between Democratic organizations and unions, and coordinate political efforts across the state.
“In this new world of Citizens United, you want to take advantage of all the opportunities you can to advance the candidates you want to support,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, director of government relations at the New Jersey Education Association. “We wanted to broaden our participation in the electoral world, using our resources to leverage the energy of other groups.”
If successful, that model is likely to be exported to other state and federal races next year.
“These groups are now operating as surrogate parties,” said Jeffrey M. Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. “They are assuming all of the roles that parties have performed in our past.”