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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Special interest spending in New Jersey's election last year spiked by 34 percent, or nearly $19 million, more than in the previous gubernatorial election year, according to a new state report out Wednesday.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission said $74 million was spent in the 2017 contest when governor, Senate and Assembly were all on the ballot, up from about $55 million in 2013, when Republican Chris Christie was re-elected in a landslide.

Last year's contest saw Democrat Phil Murphy defeat Republican Kim Guadagno by double digits.

The biggest change came from higher spending by independent groups, organizations that influence elections beyond candidates and political parties.

"In the past, special interest groups used lobbying and political action committees as their main vehicle for influencing public policy," ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle in a statement. "During the last decade, independent groups have quickly become their preferred weapon."

Those are groups like General Majority PAC, which spent roughly $7 million last year helping Democrats.

Other big spenders included unions, with the New Jersey Education Association — the state's biggest teacher's union — topping the list. The union backed Murphy over Guadagno and was also heavily involved in trying to defeat Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, though it failed.

The union spent nearly $10 million, primarily on independent expenditures.

The report tallied contributions to candidates and parties, independent spending and lobbying.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states to elect governors in the year after presidential contests.

In New Jersey, Democrats took control of the governor's office for the first time in eight years and expanded their control in the Assembly and Senate as well.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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