The race to pick an opponent for freshman Rep. Andy Kim (D-Marlton) is now expected to be decided in the June 2 Republican primary after millionaire David Richter won the Ocean County GOP line at the party’s convention last night.
Richter defeated Kate Gibbs, a 34-year-old labor leader and former Burlington County freeholder director, by 8 votes, 68-60, to secure the organization line.
Gibbs had won a vote of the Ocean GOP screening committee on February 15 and Richter’s win was a rare rejection of the screening committee recommendation.
New Jersey’s 3rd district is almost equally divided between Ocean and Burlington counties – Ocean made up 52% of the 2016 Republican primary vote – and Gibbs has the organization line in Burlington.
The primary contest has already turned nasty.
Richter had emerged as the leading candidate to challenge Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd district, but his campaign collapsed when Van Drew switched parties late last year and President Donald Trump and local GOP leaders endorsed the new Republican congressman.
The New Jersey Globe reported last month that the White House had tasked former Gov. Chris Christie with helping to move Richter into the 3rd district race, where Gibbs had already emerged as the front runner to take on Kim.
Christie enlisted former Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore to secure political support in Ocean County for Richter. Gilmore, who has been sentenced to 366 days in federal prison after his conviction on tax-related charges, remains free pending his appeal.
Gilmore attended the Ocean convention last night and was aggressively whipping votes for Richter.
The race was upended again when the Asbury Park Press revealed that Gibbs had been arrested for shoplifting and marijuana possession when she was in her early twenties.
In 2014, Gibbs was charged with possession of alcohol in a beach in Sea Bright.
Gibbs was severely damaged by The “Snookie ad,” a tough and undeniably effective video ad that compares Gibbs’ legal issues to the Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.
Richter hired Larry Weitzner, one of the nation’s top GOP ad makers, to produce the Snooki attack that severely damaged Gibbs’ candidacy.
He also hired former White House political director Bill Stepien as his strategist, Larry Weitzner’s Jamestown Associates as his media consultant, and former Ocean County GOP executive director Tom Bonfonti as campaign manager.
Gibbs is using New Jersey’s top Republican strategist, Chris Russell. Russell had initially worked for Richter, but dropped him when the NRCC pressured GOP operatives to not work against Van Drew.
Richter, the former Hill International CEO, has been largely self-funding his campaign.
Earlier this month, former U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin, his wife, Kathy, Laura Overdeck and Candy Straight announced the formation of a super PAC to back Gibbs. They have not disclosed how much money they intend to spend, although the four leaders are major GOP donors and could easily self-fund the operation.
Also looking large is the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, where Gibbs is employed. It’s not immediately clear how much the union is willing to spend to get Gibbs the nomination.
The bottom line is that Republicans appear prepared to burn through their warchests by June 2, leaving Kim in the enviable position.
Kim had a monster 4th quarter of 2019, raising $900,000 and began the year with $2.2 million in his campaign warchest after raising $2.7 million since taking office one year ago. His fundraising haul comes without accepting corporate PAC money.
A former Obama White House staffer, Kim ousted two-term Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-Toms River) in 2018 by 3,973 votes (50%-49%) in what was the closest House race in the state.
He was helped by having a clear field for the Democratic nomination after Brick mayor John Ducey declined to run.
Kim has also been accumulating union endorsements, some of which went to MacArthur in 2018.
Neither side has suggested that they will run their own line of freeholder candidates in their opponents county, although that is always a possibility to avoid being placed in a sort of ballot Siberia.
In 2008, when Rep. Jim Saxton (R-Mount Holly) retired, Burlington Republicans picked Medford mayor Christopher Myers as their candidate, while the Ocean GOP gave their line to freeholder Jack Kelly. Myers’ name got lost on the Ocean ballot after a third candidate bracketed with a rival slate.
In that race, Myers beat Kelly by 6,163 votes, 49%-25%, with Justin Michael Murphy (also 25%) finishing 437 votes behind Kelly. Myers won 74% in Burlington, but just 26% in Ocean, where Kelly beat Murphy, 44%-30%. Cherry Hill was also in the district at the time and Myers, running on the Camden GOP line, took 69%.
But Myers had to spend over $300,000 to win the primary, and that damaged his general election prospects. State Sen. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) beat him by 13,268 votes, 52%-48%, to become the first Democrat to represent the district since Thomas Ferrell won in 1882.
It’s also not clear whether Gibbs will bracket with U.S. Senate candidate Rik Mehta in Ocean County. Mehta is running with Gibbs in Burlington County and both candidates are using Russell as their consultant.
Mehta lost the Ocean convention to Hirsh Singh.
Two other candidates remain in the race: Barnegat mayor John Novak and former Hainesport mayor Tony Porto.