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LD24 candidates Dawn Fantasia, Parker Space, and Mike Inganamort campaign in Mount Olive. (Photo: Mike Inganamort via Twitter).

The three most important county conventions of 2023 are nearly here

Morris GOP, Mercer Dems, and Ocean GOP will each award county lines in competitive primaries

By Joey Fox, March 03 2023 2:54 pm

In New Jersey, not all county conventions are created equal. Some county parties already decided months ago who they’re supporting for key offices like state senator and county commissioner; others don’t award county organizational lines at all, making their conventions moot.

But a few county parties let their conventions become raucous, open-air affairs that set the party’s candidates and agenda for the year ahead. This year, there are three such conventions, and they’re all coming within the next week: the Morris GOP convention tomorrow, the Mercer Democratic convention on Sunday, and the Ocean GOP convention on Wednesday.

At each convention, there will be at least two highly competitive races, and incumbents could fall by the wayside in all three. Here’s a preview of what to expect in Morris, Mercer, and Ocean Counties in the coming week.

Morris Republicans

Morris Republicans have only had an organizational line for two election cycles, but in both of those cycles, the party kicked one incumbent to the curb. This year could extend that streak to three, with an incumbent county commissioner and three state legislators all facing serious challengers.

The most competitive race of the convention, however, isn’t really a Morris County race at all. Instead, it’s the contest in the 24th legislative district – which is primarily based in Sussex County but also includes seven Morris municipalities – where Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage) and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan are duking it out for retiring Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin)’s seat.

Running alongside Space are Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia and Chester Mayor Mike Inganamort, the one Morris County candidate in the race. Also in the race are Lafayette Board of Education President Josh Aikens and Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski, running as a joint slate that’s semi-associated with Lonegan. (Two other candidates, Enrico Fioranelli and Rob Kovic, didn’t file for the Morris convention.)

Because Sussex Republicans don’t have a county line, the Morris convention will be the race’s main showdown before the June primary. And it’s gotten quite nasty, with the candidates exchanging blows over Confederate flag tattoos (Space has one), previous election losses (Lonegan has seven), and the nature of the Morris convention itself.

Lonegan, Aikens, and Sarnoski have complained bitterly about the convention’s rules, which they say don’t guarantee sufficient election integrity. Whether they make that a focus of tomorrow’s convention, particularly if they lose, remains to be seen.

Two districts to the east, State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) faces a challenge from County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo (R-Montville), while Assemblymen Brian Bergen (R-Denville) and Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) will go up against former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany). 

Mastrangelo and DeCroce share the distinction of losing the Morris GOP line before, though their paths fork from there: Mastrangelo managed to win off-the-line in his 2022 commissioner primary, while DeCroce lost to Webber and now-Assemblyman Christian Barranco (R-Jefferson) in her 2021 Assembly campaign. Neither are likely to get the county line this time, either.

Finally, there’s a county commissioner race between incumbent Commissioner Tayfun Selen (R-Chatham) and former congressional candidate Paul DeGroot, with Republican county committeeman Anthony Somma also running. Selen and DeGroot faced off once before in the 2022 11th congressional district primary; Selen won the county line in Morris, but DeGroot won the primary overall (before losing in a landslide to Rep. Mikie Sherrill).

Depending on the results of the convention, a variety of new alliances could form before the June primary. Whichever candidates don’t get the organizational line will have an incentive to team up with one another and possibly recruit more candidates, such as a second Assembly candidate in the 26th district or a challenger to County Clerk Ann Grossi.

With the filing deadline still weeks away, the results of tomorrow’s convention will not be the end of primary season in Morris County, but just the beginning.

Mercer Democrats

The very next day, Mercer County Democrats will have their own boisterous convention, with the headlining race being the county executive contest between incumbent Brian Hughes and Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton).

Hughes has been county executive since 2004, and has built his re-election campaign around a message of stability and success, while Benson is arguing that Mercer County needs new leadership. Benson’s message seems to have been the more persuasive one; he’s got a huge array of local Democratic leaders in his corner, and Hughes admitted at the New Jersey Globe’s primary debate that he’s unlikely to get the organizational line.

It’s been somewhat drowned out by the noise of the county executive primary, but as Mercer Democrats determine Benson’s fate, they’ll simultaneously hash out his successor in the Assembly. Two Democrats, Tennille McCoy and Rick Carabelli, have filed to run in the 14th legislative district, and there seems to be little consensus about which one is favored.

Whoever wins will also have to compete for the Middlesex Democratic line, though there may not be an appetite among Middlesex Democrats to break with Mercer’s preferences. The 14th district is at the edge of the competitive playing field, and the open seat could come into play if Republicans have a good election year.

There will also be a rather sleepy contest for Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery)’s seat in the 16th district, which is largely based in other counties but includes Princeton. Mitchelle Drulis, previously the district director for former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes), is expected to get organizational support unopposed.

Ocean Republicans

Last but not least, next Wednesday, Ocean Republicans will meet for their first convention since county GOP chair George Gilmore returned to power, and it’s bound to get heated.

As many as five of Ocean’s legislative and countywide offices could get new presumptive Republican nominees after Wednesday’s convention, significantly reshaping governance in the solidly Republican county. And given that most elected officials backed Gilmore’s opponent in last year’s county chair race, any turnover is something of a victory for the chairman.

There’s one Gilmore ally who’s already a shoo-in: Berkeley Mayor Carmen Amato, who is set to take State Sen. Chris Connors (R-Lacey)’s 9th district Senate seat without a fight. Connors announced in January that he would retire, and Amato has had the field to himself since he launched his campaign shortly afterwards.

Races for four Assembly seats, however, are much more complicated.

In the 9th district, Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) is under dire threat from Stafford Mayor Greg Myhre, who has the endorsement of the Ocean GOP screening committee. Gove is taking the fight to the convention, but getting dumped by the screening committee is an ominous sign for her chances.

Her seatmate, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-Little Egg Harbor), could theoretically be in danger as well, though he did get the screening committee’s endorsement. Three other 9th district candidates are expected not to place their names in nomination on Wednesday, creating a three-way fight among Rumpf, Gove, and Myhre – with Gove likely ending up as the odd woman out.

In the 9th district race, Gilmore has largely taken a backseat, neither actively aiding nor targeting the two incumbents. But the chairman has had a more active role in his home district, the 10th, where Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Toms River) is running for re-election and Assemblyman John Catalano (R-Brick) is retiring to run for mayor of Brick.

Like Gove, McGuckin lost the screening committee nod, which instead went to Toms River school board member Ashley Lamb and former Brick Councilwoman Ruthanne Scaturro. A fourth candidate is also in the running: Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra, who thanks to a filing snafu already has the GOP line alongside McGuckin in the small Monmouth County portion of the district.

More than anything else, McGuckin’s chances depend on a vote that will be held right at the beginning of the convention: whether to decertify the current Toms River GOP club and certify a new, Gilmore-friendly club. If the current club, which is aligned with McGuckin, gets decertified, then the assemblyman has virtually no chance of winning the organizational line.

Last but not least, there’s a race for the county commission seat left open by incumbent Joseph Vicari (R-Toms River), who is retiring after a record 42 years in county government. Frank Sadeghi – Gilmore’s unsuccessful choice for Ocean GOP chair in a 2019 special election triggered by Gilmore’s conviction-related resignation – is seemingly the frontrunner, but other candidates could emerge on the convention floor.

Like in Morris County, some fights might not be settled until the June primary. But the Ocean GOP organization is a strong one, particularly when it’s led by Gilmore, and the convention will be the once-and-future chairman’s most important test yet.

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