TRENTON, New Jersey — An outside political group has wagered more than $1 million to help Democrats in three contested Assembly races, splashing New Jersey TV waves with doom-and-gloom images of Atlantic City, but it's unclear whether the bet will pay off.
Experts say it's a lot of money to spend on an election that few are expected to participate in and that is not likely to change the political dynamics in Trenton. And it's uncertain what effect the ads and mailers are having against Republicans because of a lack of publicly available polling in the races.
What does seem certain, though, is that General Majority PAC's spending in southern New Jersey's 1st and 2nd Districts and northern New Jersey's 38th District is expected to be the largest block of spending by an outside group this election cycle, according to state officials.
The PAC bills itself as a fighter for Democratic ideals across the country, but it has some New Jersey roots. Its president Susan McCue, the former chief of staff to one-time U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a New Jersey native who sits on the board at Rutgers.
It's also not the first New Jersey election in which General Majority PAC has flexed its financial muscles. In 2013, the organization, known then as the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, spent $8 million in support of Democratic candidates. Election Law Enforcement Commission executive director Jeff Brindle said in an interview with The Associated Press he thinks the group's spending this year constitute the largest block of outside spending in the general election.
Election Law Enforcement Commission records show General Majority PAC spent the most in the 2nd District, dropping $449,000 for web, radio and mail ads in a region that includes Atlantic City. It's spent $405,000 this cycle in the rural 1st District, which includes Cape May County, and $160,000 in the 38th District. Messages seeking comment from the PAC have not been returned.
Democrats could capture a seat in each of the southern districts, where Democrats and Republicans split control.
"Each side is looking for some bragging rights in picking up that spare seat," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "They're spending a lot of money for something that doesn't matter all that much."
Some of the ads the group is running focus on the casino industry, which plays a key role in the southern New Jersey economy. The group is running the same ad but with different candidate names in both southern New Jersey districts. It opens by saying "times are tough in Atlantic City" and casts the Democrats — 1st District incumbent Bob Andrzejczak and running mate Bruce Land or 2nd District incumbent Vince Mazzeo and running mate Colin Bell — as willing to stand up to politicians who want casinos in northern New Jersey. What the ad does not say is that it's fellow Democrats who have proposed casinos in the northern part of the state.
The PAC is also running an ad that casts 1st District Republican incumbent Sam Fiocchi as a delinquent taxpayer, though his campaign says he's paid about $500,000 in property taxes since 2006 and the interest on the late payments ranges from 27 cents to under $10.
It has also targeted Republican incumbent Chris Brown and running mate Will Pauls in the 2nd District, who are running against Mazzeo and Bell.
In the 38th District, Democratic incumbents Tim Eustace and Joseph Lagana are running against Republican Mark DiPisa. DiPisa's running mate, Anthony Cappola, bowed out of the race when a book he wrote more than a decade ago surfaced. In it, he ranted against gays and others, resulting in his party distancing itself from him.
The PAC spending comes with the Assembly at the top of the ticket for the first time since 1999 and as Democrats hope to expand their majority in the state's lower legislative chamber. They currently control the Assembly by a margin of 48 to 32 over Republicans.
Republicans decry the spending. It shows the party is "completely beholden" to special interests, says Republican Assembly candidate spokesman Chris Russell. Democrats point out that, by law, they cannot coordinate with the group.
"I don't know what they're doing or what their plans are," said Kevin Stamps, the Democratic campaign manager for the 2nd District.