Race to defeat N.J. Senate President Sweeney sets spending record

New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Thorofare. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Thorofare. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

With $11.3 million spent already, the race between New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Salem County GOP Chairman Fran Grenier is the most expensive legislative race in state history, according to figures released by the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The previous record was set in 2003 when Democrat Fred Madden defeated Republican George Geist in a race that cost $6.2 million ($8.1 million today’s dollars), ELEC said.

Independent groups — not state or local political parties — are primarily footing the bill in the contest between Sweeney and Grenier.

Incumbent Sweeney has made enemies with the largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, for his alliance with Gov. Chris Christie, especially on changing pensions for public employees.

Garden State Forward, a political advocacy funded by NJEA, has already contributed more than $4 million for ads in the race.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, said he isn’t surprised by the record-breaking spending.

“Whenever an independent group decides to target a particular district, you’re going to see record spending and that’s what we’re seeing this year,” Brindle said.

Big spenders for Sweeney include New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow at $2.6 million; General Majority PAC at $895,000; and Carpenters’ Fund for Growth and Progress at $756,000.

Brindle said he expects total independent spending will likely top $20 million for the 2017 legislative races. Ten years ago, spending on legislative races reached only $165,000.

“Each year, basically, there’s an increase in independent spending in New Jersey,” Brindle said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.