Special-interest groups spent about $10 million in the few competitive Assembly races this year in the Garden State.

The Assembly Chambers at the Statehouse (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

A lot of that spending came from the General Majority Political Action Committee which worked to get Democrats elected. The money produced results, but the head of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission said that much independent spending was not good for the citizens of the state or the candidates running.

“Candidates in those targeted districts where most of this spending is taking place look like they don’t have control over the own campaigns and the more that we have this independent, outside group activity in New Jersey, the less candidates have over their own campaigns,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC executive director.

When special-interest groups spend so much, it’s their message that’s getting out more than the candidates’ views. Brindle said candidates who face that kind of special-interest spending are, “being emasculated.”

ELEC’s Oct. 29 report on campaign finance disclosure showed outside groups had yet to spend any money in District 11, but in the days leading up to the election, a Democratic PAC spent $186,000 and got the desired result. Incumbent Republican Assemblywomen Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande were ousted by Democrats Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey.

Other districts targeted for spending by special-interest groups include 1, 2, 16 and 38. In District 1, Democrat Bruce Land defeated incumbent GOP Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi. The incumbents in District 2 both won re-election and that was the case in 38 as well, but 16 remained too close to call for one incumbent Republican Assembly member. Assemblywoman Donna Simon trailed Democrat Andrew Zwicker by just 30 votes.

The final ELEC spending numbers were expected to be released in December, but the latest report showed special-interest spending in targeted districts 11 days out from the election:

  • District 1 - $1.45 million (all by General Majority)
  • District 2 - $1.5 million (all by General Majority)
  • District 38 - $373,000 (all by General Majority)
  • District 16 - $250,000

The trend of increased outside spending was likely to continue, Brindle said. In 2013, special-interest groups spent roughly $40 million on the gubernatorial, Senate and Assembly races combined. Brindle predicted that spending could double in 2017 when the governor’s office and every seat in Legislature is up for grabs again.

“Independent groups which basically represent special interests are becoming more important and that’s certainly not in the public interest,” he said.

The special-interest spending made a big difference according to another political expert.

“It helps to have a huge monetary advantage and between their campaigns and the independent expenditures that were done on their behalf the Democratic candidates had a massive fundraising advantage,” said Ben Dworkin, a professor of political science at Rider University.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at kevin.mcardle@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.