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Assemblyman Brian Rumpf at Gov. Phil Murphy’s FY2024 Budget Address. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

The filing deadline is 17 days away, but primary season is already cooling down

Two big primaries, 24th district Senate and Mercer County Executive, ended this week

By Joey Fox, March 10 2023 4:00 pm

The filing deadline for New Jersey’s 2023 primary is still 17 days away; the primary itself is a full 71 days after that. But thanks in large part to the power of the county line, primary season is already calming down, with few competitive contests likely to appear on voters’ ballots in June.

Throughout the last few weeks, and continuing into next week, Democratic and Republican county parties across the state have awarded organizational lines to their preferred candidates for the 2023 elections. The line comes with a tremendous amount of institutional support, and candidates who don’t get it often end their campaigns entirely.

Politicians occasionally choose to forge ahead even without party support, so some voters will still have a choice. But many others don’t; two of the year’s biggest primary contests, for Mercer County Executive and 24th district State Senate, ended this week when one candidate chose to drop out, and more major contests could soon follow. 

Here’s a look at what primaries are still on, which ones are in flux, and which ones are over before they could even begin.

Still going strong

Despite the chilling effect of the county line, there are still a number of primaries that voters will get to decide on June 6.

At the top of the list is the race for the State Assembly in the 24th district. Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage) may not have any competition for the Senate as of this morning, but his two running mates, Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia (R-Franklin) and Chester Township Mayor Mike Inganamort, still have a tough fight ahead of them for two Assembly seats.

Their main competition comes from the joint slate of Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski (R-Independence) and Lafayette Board of Education President Josh Aikens, who have argued Space’s teammates are insufficiently conservative. Also running are Enrico Fioranelli and Rob Kovic, who have made less of an impact so far.

Fantasia and Inganamort have the GOP line in Morris County, and the Warren GOP line has yet to be awarded. But the bulk of the 24th district is in Sussex County, which doesn’t have a line, making the 24th district primary the most volatile in the state.

Morris Republicans also have a contested race in the 26th legislative district, where County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo (R-Montville) and former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) are running for Senate and Assembly, respectively, against a team of incumbents.

Mastrangelo and DeCroce both got thrashed at last weekend’s Morris GOP convention, so their support among the Republican establishment is low. Still, they’re both seasoned politicians with local brands, and they could work to build out a larger slate; County Commissioner Tayfun Selen (R-Chatham) had two challengers at the convention, neither of whom have announced their own plans for the primary.

And in the 27th district, Essex and Passaic Democrats will have a choice between two long-serving Senate incumbents: State Sen./former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), who were drawn into the same district.

Codey, alongside incumbent Assemblymen Tom Giblin (D-Montclair) and John McKeon (D-West Orange), has the Essex Democratic line and is considered the clear favorite. But Gill isn’t going down without a fight, and she’s enlisted two former board of education members, Eve Robinson and Frank Kasper, as her Assembly running mates.

There are also a few less prominent contests that are set to appear on primary ballots, though none are likely to be highly competitive.

In the 19th district, Michelle Burwell has filed to run in the Democratic primary against State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge). Two Republicans in competitive districts, former Burlington County Freeholder Latham Tiver in the 8th district and former Rep. Mike Pappas (R-Branchburg) in the 16th district, face primaries against Will Monk and Jeff Grant, respectively. 

And two Hudson County heirs apparent will get primary challenges: Craig Guy from Eleana Little for the county executive’s office, and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) from Michael Griffin for an open Senate seat.

Each of these challenges, and any others that may arise, has little chance of succeeding. Every year, a few lesser-known candidates without strong connections to the county party system file to run off-the-line – and in all but the most extraordinary of circumstances, their campaigns struggle to go anywhere.

Currently in flux

Thanks to big developments in the last week, there are some races that are in limbo at the moment, though each of them is likely to resolve in one direction or the other relatively soon.

Starting in Ocean County, the fight for four dark-red Assembly seats may be over now that the GOP county council has made its picks. On Wednesday night, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-Little Egg Harbor) and Stafford Mayor Greg Myhre got party support for the 9th district – beating out incumbent Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) – while Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Toms River) and Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra won the line in the 10th district.

Gove said that she may continue her campaign off-the-line, and one of McGuckin’s opponents, Toms River school board member Ashley Lamb, is also undecided about her next steps. But the Ocean GOP, led by chairman George Gilmore, has rallied around its official candidates, and it’s hard to imagine a lone off-the-line campaign winning.

Over in the 3rd district, it’s not exactly clear where the contest between State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Logan) and Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum (R-Pilesgrove) stands. 

Durr and his running mates looked incredibly vulnerable for a time, but they bounced back to win the county lines in both Gloucester and Cumberland Counties; since Salem Republicans don’t have a line, that leaves Ostrum in a difficult spot. The district’s much-hyped challenge could ultimately come to nought – bad news for Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich), who aligned herself with Ostrum and may find herself without a slate to run on.

Also on unclear footing is the Republican primary in the 39th district, where State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) is running for re-election alongside Assemblyman Bob Auth (R-Old Tappan) and Saddle River Councilman John Azzariti.

Two other candidates have filed to run at the GOP convention: board of education member Michele LaTour for the Senate and former Freeholder Todd Caliguire for the Assembly. Whether they can win the line, and whether they’d continue their campaigns even if they didn’t, is yet to be determined.

Finally, there’s the odd situation in the 14th district, where three Democrats running for two seats each have party support in at least one county. Mercer Democrats unexpectedly awarded their county line to newcomers Tennille McCoy and Rick Carabelli, shunning incumbent Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton); DeAngelo then recovered to win the Middlesex Democratic line alongside McCoy.

The most likely outcome is that Carabelli drops out of the race, leaving McCoy and DeAngelo as the presumptive Democratic nominees. But he did finish first at the Mercer convention, and if he decides to stay in, a fascinating three-way primary could ensue.

Over and out

And then there are the many campaigns that ended long before they reached the primary ballot – the most recent being former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan’s campaign for the State Senate in the 24th district.

Lonegan, who had run seven previous campaigns for higher office and won zero of them, had been running an aggressive and deeply conservative campaign, and it seemed like he would give Space a real contest. But he evidently decided there was no path to victory and dropped out of the race last weekend, news that he only divulged today.

Also reading the tea leaves was Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, who chose to end his campaign after getting walloped by Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) at the Mercer Democratic convention. Even though Hughes had promised to run off-the-line – a promise he reiterated at the convention itself – he ultimately decided not to go through with what would have been a thankless fight.

In the 12th district, State Sen. Sam Thompson (D-Old Bridge) found an unusual way to avoid a Republican primary against Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry: switch to the Democratic Party. His party switch ended up being moot anyways, though, since a few weeks later he reversed course and announced his retirement from his very conservative district.

That’s not to mention the many potential primaries that never existed at all. In the 16th district, for example, an open Assembly seat could have hosted a hugely competitive primary. But party leaders started rallying early behind former congressional staffer Mitchelle Drulis, and no other Democrat ever launched a campaign to challenge her. 

The same goes for open seats in the 28th, 32nd, 33rd, and 34th districts, all safely Democratic districts where party leaders chose nominees before a primary could even begin.

If the ongoing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county line system is successful, future election cycles might look very different. A post-county line New Jersey would require political parties to find new ways to promote their chosen candidates, and give other candidates a clearer shot at victory.

Until then, however, primary season will remain a muted affair. In the New Jersey of 2023, conventions still reign supreme.

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