Last weekend’s Morris County Republican convention, just like any other party convention, resulted in some winners and some losers.
The winners: County Commissioner Tayfun Selen (R-Chatham); 24th district Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage), who’s running for State Senate, and his two associated Assembly candidates; and three incumbent legislators in the 26th district, led by State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville). The seven victors, alongside a number of other incumbents who ran uncontested, will now run as a collective Morris Republican slate in the June primary.
As for the losers, they have two major decisions to make. First, whether to continue their campaigns at all, and second, whether to join together and make a slate of their own – a decision that could boost their chances substantially.
Five of the seven candidates who failed to get the Morris line have already confirmed that they’re still running despite not getting party support.
County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo (R-Montville) and former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany), running for 26th district Senate and Assembly, respectively, have both confirmed they’ll forge ahead. And three 24th district candidates – former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, Lafayette Board of Education President Josh Aikens, and Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski (R-Independence) – are running for a district that’s mostly Sussex County, so the Morris line wasn’t a critical part of their campaign anyways.
The two candidates who ran against Selen for county commissioner, on the other hand, are not certain to continue on to the June primary. Former congressional nominee Paul DeGroot said during the convention that he was undecided about whether to run off-the-line, and county committeemember Anthony Somma hasn’t announced his own plans.
Each of the off-the-line candidates has compelling reasons why they could still win. Lonegan, Sarnoski, and Aikens never really needed the Morris line to begin with, while Mastrangelo, DeCroce, and DeGroot have all done well off-the-line before; Mastrangelo actually won countywide in 2022 without party support.
But regardless of their individual strengths, for a variety of structural reasons, they’d likely be stronger as a team.
For one, as Director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University Micah Rasmussen noted, slates of candidates are able to balance one another out geographically and ideologically.
“You team up with anchors from three different towns in the district that can crank out support in each of those three towns,” Rasmussen said, referring to New Jersey’s three-member legislative tickets. “They lend each other their geographic support, and they lend each other their strengths.”
Sussex and Warren County-based candidates in the 24th district, for example, could benefit from an association with Morris County natives who would have connections in communities that they’ve never represented before.
Ballots in New Jersey are also designed more favorably for teams than for individual candidates. With party-endorsed candidates bracketed together in the organizational column, off-the-line candidates have an incentive to create their own slate, rather than splintering off into multiple different columns (though in recent Morris primary elections, off-the-line candidates have often been put in the same column regardless of their affiliation with each other).
“If you’re one box on a ballot, off the line, it’s harder to find you than if you’re an entire slate running together,” Rasmussen said. “If you can pull off [an off-the-line slate], that’s the way to go. Because you’ve neutralized the strength of the party line, if you can do this correctly.”
In the 2022 Republican primary for the 5th congressional district, for example, Frank Pallotta didn’t get the Bergen GOP line, but he did recruit a slate of county-level candidates and managed to snag Column A, the best ballot position. He nearly carried Bergen off-the-line, and won the primary overall, thanks in part to the visually formidable slate he had crafted.
In order to compete for the top ballot spot, candidates have to align with a county commissioner candidate. That means that DeGroot and Somma, neither of whom have allied with anyone else, may be in high demand from Morris County’s off-the-line legislative candidates.
The problem, though, is that taking individual campaigns and subordinating them to a larger slate can cause complications, particularly if the candidates don’t have much in common to begin with. And there are already signs of serious splinters among the losers of Saturday’s convention.
Aikens and Sarnoski are running with each other, but they’ve made it clear that they’re not affiliated with Lonegan – something that Lonegan doesn’t seem to recognize. (There are two other Republicans running for the Assembly in the 24th district, Enrico Fioranelli and Rob Kovic, but they didn’t file for the Morris line and it’s not clear how they’ll fit into the campaign.)
Lonegan, meanwhile, has a fraught relationship with many longtime Republican politicians, among them DeCroce, whom he slammed on Twitter last month.
DeGroot declared when he launched his campaign that he didn’t plan on aligning his campaign with any others, and Mastrangelo said on convention day that he has not yet decided whether he’ll seek out allies. There’s also the possibility that more candidates will emerge, particularly for the other 26th district Assembly seat or against County Clerk Ann Grossi.
In other words, the seven different off-the-line candidates are just that: seven different candidates, each of whom (other than the joint ticket of Aikens and Sarnoski) has a different strategy for victory. Not all of them are going to agree with one another, even if it would be more electorally expedient for them to do so.
“When you’re running with three people, you have the baggage of everybody else,” Rasmussen said. “You’re running with the records of everybody else… That’s really the danger of not being your own person, is that you have to answer for everybody else that you’re running with.”
With the official Morris Republican slate unifying around one another, there is a strong incentive for their opponents to do the same. But in New Jersey politics, just because something is logical doesn’t mean it will happen.