This Could Be the Most Expensive State Legislative Race in History. Here’s Why It’s a Waste of Money.

The teachers union in New Jersey is spending big to unseat the state Senate president.
by | November 6, 2017
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney is seeking re-election in a race that may end up costing $20 million. (AP/Mel Evans)

This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.

How much is a state Senate seat worth? Is it worth $20 million?

Steve Sweeney, the president of the New Jersey Senate, is seeking re-election on Tuesday. Sweeney, a Democrat, is being opposed by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the primary teachers union in the state. Given NJEA's deep pockets -- and the amount of money Sweeney has raised from other unions and allies -- spending in the race could top $20 million.

The union is on track to spend upwards of $8 million in the race. Sweeney and his backers, including a super PAC and the carpenters union, are expected to spend more than $11 million.

"We know there's a certain sense of diminishing returns, but as in any campaign, you don't want to be outspent if you can afford not to be," says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "Everybody is doubling down and doubling down again."

Through Oct. 27, total spending on the race had already reached $16.6 million, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

That means the race could easily end up becoming the most expensive state legislative contest in U.S. history. Last year, Jim Durkin, the Republican leader in the Illinois House, raised $19.4 million. But nearly all that money came from Illinois GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and his wife and allies, with Durkin -- who was unopposed for re-election -- transferring the bulk of it to the House Republican Organization and the Illinois Republican Party.

Only two other state legislative contests have ever topped $10 million, according to the National Center on Money in State Politics.

It's not clear what the New Jersey Education Association is going to get for its investment. Just at the moment when the state is electing a new governor, the union has aggravated its most powerful legislative leader.

"It's a calculation I don't understand," says John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "Sweeney has been a very powerful Senate president and is almost certain to keep that role if he is re-elected."

The NJEA maintains that its members want a change in leadership. Sweeney has been too close with outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie, union officials say. Specifically, they're angry about his work on a 2011 law that overhauled pension and health benefits for state workers, limiting the state's own contribution. And they argue that he betrayed a promise last year to move legislation that would have required that the state make its full pension payments on a quarterly basis.

"Sen. Sweeney cannot compete and win on his record," the NJEA said in a statement. "Sweeney is [trying to] cling to power despite his abysmal record as a Senate president working in close coordination with Gov. Chris Christie."

Sweeney supporters counter that the union, in supporting Fran Grenier, Sweeney's opponent and the chair of the Salem County GOP, is backing an actual ally of Christie and of President Donald Trump. They argue that the millions spent on this race would have been better devoted to backing Democratic candidates in other closely contested state Senate elections.

"I'm an NJEA member and the trash I'm seeing on television is disgusting to me," says Cody Miller, a councilman in Monroe. "Before Steve was elected, all the money and resources would go to North Jersey. He's been able to provide resources to South Jersey."

But the NJEA is playing a long game, Dworkin says. Back in 1991, the union took on another state Senate president, John Lynch, offering him a tough re-election battle. Lynch won that fight, but Republicans took control of the chamber. Lynch stepped down as the Senate Democratic leader in 1997.

Lynch is long gone, in other words, but the NJEA is still around and still a force in state politics.

"This could backfire, in the short term," Dworkin says. "But the NJEA is not playing a short-term game here. Part of the NJEA strategy is to set a precedent for every legislator to believe that if you cross them too many times, they'll come after you."

Sweeney told The New York Times last month that he's "not a grudge guy," but the expensive fight is bound to leave open some wounds. The union's ads have described Sweeney as a "double dipper pension padder" and suggested that he's wined and dined on the taxpayers' dime. The NJEA also accuses Sweeney and his allies of putting forward misleading information in their advertising, sending out emails that make it appear the union is backing him.

Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor, is expected to win election Tuesday. He has remained publicly neutral in the Sweeney-NJEA fight, which Sweeney has called "disappointing."

"Phil Murphy hasn't really taken a stand," says Miller. "That's really frustrating. They're going to have to be working together and will have to make amends."

There's also expected to be a fight among House Democrats for the speakership, meaning the new governor could be working with two new chamber leaders -- or an old hand with cause for resentment.

One reason the fight over Sweeney's re-election is so expensive is that it's taking place within the Philadelphia media market -- one of the costliest in the country. That also means most of the people being exposed to broadcast ads aren't even New Jersey residents -- let alone constituents in Sweeney's district.

"When you're in a high-profile race, with each side being well-financed, going on network TV in Philadelphia is the one way to reach the voters," Dworkin says. "If this fight were happening even in Milwaukee, it wouldn't cost this much. It's just a really expensive market."

The race has not only broken all records in the state but contributed to a spike in overall spending on legislative races. Ten years ago, independent committees spent $165,000 on New Jersey legislative contests, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. This year, they've already spent $21.5 million.

This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.