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U.S. Senator Clifford P. Case, the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey, and Assembly Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean on the floor of the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City

Union County vote is first in GOP U.S. Senate race

Six candidates vying for chance to take on Cory Booker

By David Wildstein, January 29 2020 5:48 pm

Union County will be the first GOP organization to take sides in the race for U.S. Senate when they hold their convention this evening.

Republicans have lost the last sixteen races for U.S. Senate in New Jersey and haven’t won since 1972; only Hawaii has gone longer.

Six Republicans are competing for the chance to take on Cory Booker, who announced earlier this month that he was ending his presidential bid and seeking re-election to his Senate seat: Hirsh Singh, Stuart Meissner, Rik Mehta, Tricia Flanagan, Natalie Rivera and Gary Rich.

Mehta is the only political newcomer in the field.

Singh ran statewide in 2017 as a candidate for governor, and Meissner, Flanagan and Rivera have all mounted unsuccessful U.S. Senate bids as independents.  Singh has the backing of Republican National Committeeman Bill Palatucci, while Meissner has been endorsed by Hudson County Republican Chairman Jose Arango.

Rich is the only candidate with public office experience; he served two terms as a Monmouth County Freeholder after serving as a councilman in both South Belmar (now Lake Como) and Spring Lake.

Unlike 2018, when self-funder Bob Hugin spent $40 million running for the Senate, few Republicans believe Booker is beatable.  Presidential year turnouts will highlight the state’s Democratic voter registration edge.

New Jersey now has 982,115 more Democrats than Republicans, and that number is growing.   The registration gap is on a pace to exceed one million this year, and Democrats could surpass unaffiliated voters (aka independents) as well.

The last time Booker ran, in 2014, New Jersey had a Republican governor and the GOP had a tough time finding someone to run.

Their candidate turned out to be 70-year-old Jeff Bell, a former Reagan campaign speechwriter who had slayed a giant in 1978 when he ousted four-term U.S. Senator Clifford Case in the Republican primary. But after losing that general election to Bill Bradley and then a GOP Senate primary to Millicent Fenwick in 1982, he moved to Virginia and didn’t return for 32 years.

Bell won the primary by 4,598 votes (29%-26%) over Richard Pezzullo. Brian Goldberg (25%) finished third, 1,864 votes behind Pezzullo. Murray Sabrin received 19% in his fourth place finish.

Some losing GOP Senate candidates have done well in their post-sacrificial lamb political careers.

David Norcross was a 39-year-old former executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission when he challenged U.S. Senator Harrison Williams in 1976 and won 39% of the vote. His quixotic campaign paved the way for him to become Republican State Chairman in 1977, where he made national GOP connections that helped him become partner at a large Washington, D.C. law firm and general counsel of the Republican National Committee.

When Christine Todd Whitman challenged Bill Bradley in 1990, she was supposed to get destroyed. But Whitman held him to 50%-47% and that propelled her into the governorship three years later.

In 1984, Montclair Mayor Mary Mochary got 34% against Bradley. That got her a Reagan administration job working as counsel to the U.S. Secretary of State.

Way back in 1966, Warren Wilentz ran against Clifford Case and got 37% of the vote. But the statewide contacts and friendships he made as a sacrificial lamb helped him build an already powerful law firm.

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