Trenton – New Jersey Democrats ceded little if any ground to Republicans in Tuesday's legislative elections, despite the personal popularity of Gov. Chris Christie and the millions of dollars he raised for the state GOP.
Democratic incumbents staved off Republican challenges in the two most competitive Senate races on Tuesday, denying bragging rights to Christie at the southern and northern ends of the state. The Republicans' most recognizable name -- Megan's Law advocate Richard Kanka -- also lost his Senate bid.
"The Christie effect was not there," said Sen. Bob Gordon, who won a hard-fought re-election campaign in Bergen County.
Gordon edged out Freeholder Chairman John Driscoll Jr. in Bergen's 38th District. The Christie-backed challenger rode the governor's coattails to a win in 2009.
A Democrat also prevailed for Senate in Atlantic County's 2nd District. Sen. Jim Whelan, a public school swim teacher and one-time Atlantic City mayor, staved off Republican Vince Polistina, a municipal engineer who gave up his Assembly seat for a chance to move to the upper house.
Both Democrats appear to have won Assembly seats in Bergen County. Republicans held both Assembly seats in Atlantic County, ensuring local representation will remain politically split.
No legislative incumbent appeared to have lost, though three Assembly seats in two southern New Jersey districts were too close to call Tuesday night. The best Democrats could do is gain one Assembly seat; the best possible outcome for Republicans is a net gain of two.
In South Jersey, Democratic incumbent Matthew Milam was slightly ahead of two Republican challengers; in Burlington, Democratic incumbent Herb Conaway and running mate Troy Singleton were ahead of Republicans Christopher Halgas and Jim Keenan.
Voters in New Jersey also approved a ballot question to legalize sports betting at casinos and race tracks, provided a federal ban is lifted.
"Tonight is a great night for New Jersey Democrats," party Chairman John Wisniewski said Tuesday night. "New Jersey voters, once again, have returned Democrats to our state Legislature in overwhelming numbers."
Christie repeatedly downplayed expectations for Republicans in the weeks leading up to the election, but he campaigned in districts where Republicans thought they had a chance, hoping to chip away at Democrats' firm grasp on the Legislature. Democrats control the Senate 24-16 and the Assembly 47-33. All 120 legislative seats were being decided Tuesday.
"It's not a referendum on my governorship," Christie declared.
The state's 40 legislative districts, redrawn this year to reflect population shifts recorded in last year's census, favored incumbents.
Christie had said he'd consider the midterm elections a win for the GOP if the party did not lose any seats. He said every governor in the past 48 years except Jim McGreevey lost seats during the midterms.
The Republican State Committee, flush with cash thanks to Christie's ability to raise money, had spent $2.2 million as of Oct. 17, compared with $689,000 spent by the Democratic State Committee, election reports show.
On the county level, Christie also hoped to make gains in county governments to better position him and the Legislature for 2013. Democrats held on to control of the freeholder board in Gloucester County, but lost control to Republicans in Salem, 4-3. In Monmouth, Republicans picked up the lone Democratic seat. Democratic gains appeared likely in Bergen.
The only statewide ballot question asked voters whether they support the legalization of sports betting if a federal ban is lifted.
Sports betting's leading advocate, Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union, planned to introduce legislation Thursday that would allow the Casino Control Commission to grant sports betting licenses to casinos and race tracks. If the legislation is enacted, the state would pursue action in federal court to overturn the betting ban.
At the local level, voters in Princeton Township and Princeton Borough decided to combine their two towns.
Borough voters passed the measure Tuesday by a margin of about 3-to-2. It was even more decisive in the township, where it passed by a margin of more than 5-to-1. The merger takes effect in 2013. At least three times in the past 60 years, the communities had rejected a merger.
In the southern New Jersey community of Moorestown, residents voted to allow alcohol sales in the town for the first time in nearly a century, according to the Courier-Post. The measure was pushed by the owners of the Mooretown Mall, which says it would have more business if it could have restaurants that serve liquor.
Voters in Cherry Hill, one of the state's larger suburbs and a Democratic stronghold, chose Democrat Chuck Cahn, a semiretired businessman, as its new mayor. He defeated Republican Stephen Buividas, an attorney. The retiring Bernie Platt, a Democrat, has been mayor of the township of 71,000 near Philadelphia since 2002.
In Gloucester County, Adam Taliaferro, a former Penn State football player who made an inspirational comeback from a paralyzing injury in 2000, won his race for freeholder. Taliaferro suffered a severe spinal cord injury while making a tackle for the Nittany Lions, and doctors feared he might never walk again. But he regained the ability to walk, graduated from Penn State and went on to earn a law degree from Rutgers-Camden.