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Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe.

Bramnick burnishes new ad, 10 months before election

GOP legislative leaders defending their own seats

By David Wildstein, January 14 2019 12:01 am

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) could face a tough race for re-election to a 10th term and he’s getting an early start with a January digital ad.

Bramnick’s 21st district has become increasingly more Democratic and while he scored a solid win in 2017, his running mate, Assembly Minority Whip Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) won by just 1,554 votes.  Munoz is the third-ranking member of the Assembly Republican leadership team.

The number two man in the GOP leadership, Minority Conference Leader Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), faces a tough challenge in the 25th district from Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger.

A tough race in the minority leader home district could give Republicans flashbacks to 2003, when the New Jersey State Senate has 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and both parties were fighting to take absolute control.

The top two Senate Republicans, Co-Senate President John Bennett (R-Little Silver) and Co-Majority Leader Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton), were both battling ethics issues in bids for re-election in districts that were heavily favorable to Republicans.

Bennett faced allegations that he over-billed municipalities for legal work he provided.  Bucco and the state were being sued for sexual harassment after his former chief of staff claimed that he required her to engage in a sexual relationship as a condition of her employment.

Bennett and Bucco, both theoretically in safe seats, were responsible for raising money for other Republican candidates.  Their own ethical issues forced them to spend a combined $1.2 million – a lot of money fifteen years ago — to protect their seats.

Bennett was held to 59% in the Republican primary and then lost the general election to Democrat Ellen Karcher by 4,574 votes.  His 42.5% of the vote reflected in a drop of 16 percentage points from his 2001 total.

Had Bennett, now the Woodbridge township administrator, left the Senate amidst the growing scandal, most observers think the Republicans would have easily held the seat.  Instead, they lost two Assembly seats as well.

Bucco won a third term in the Senate – the election was held before the lawsuit was quietly settled – with 55% of the vote.  That was a 10.4% drop from his 2001 re-election percentage.

The problem for Republicans was that Bennett and Bucco had diverted so much money to their own campaigns that other Republicans were left underfunded.

State Sen. George Geist (R-Gloucester Township) lost his seat by just 63 votes to Democrat Fred Madden.  Democrats had spent over $2 million to beat Geist; at the time, many Republicans believed that money that was spent defending Bennett and Bucco would have saved the 4th district Senate seat.

Had Geist been re-elected, there would have been a Republican with senatorial courtesy in Camden County.

Republicans also fell short in two hotly contested Senate races in Bergen County: the 36th, where recently-appointed State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) was facing former nine-term Assemblyman John Kelly (R-Nutley); and in the 38th, where five-term Assemblywoman Rose Marie Heck (R-Hasbrouck Heights) was challenging State Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Paramus).

The loss of the Bennett and Geist seats gave Democrats a 22-18 majority in the Senate.

Not only did the GOP blow control – either absolute or shared – but there were unintended consequences as well.

When Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned in 2004, a Republican might have been next in line to succeed to the governorship.

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