Two Democrats will take office today as the newest members of the Somerset County Board of Freeholders, reducing the Republican majority from 5-0 to 3-2 and setting up a race for control of county government in 2019.
Gov. Phil Murphy will be in Somerville this afternoon to swear in Sara Sooy and Shanel Robinson, who became the first Democrats to win Somerset freeholder races since Michael Ceponis won a seat in 1979. They defeated incumbents Patrick Scaglione and Mark Caliguire.
Patricia Walsh, 73, a four-term freeholder who was first elected to the Green Brook township committee in 1992, is up for re-election in November.
If Democrats can beat Walsh in a low-turnout year, they would take control for the first time since 1964. Republicans won back their majority in 1965 when Jack Ewing ousted freeholder director Gracie Gurisic by 4,135 votes.
Longtime Republican Sheriff Frank Provenzano, 75, is also up for re-election in the fall. First elected in 2001, he won a sixth term in 2016 with just 50.4% of the vote.
Once a Republican stronghold, Somerset has become a swing county in recent years.
The county has 15,798 more Democrats than Republicans. A decade ago, Republicans had an edge of 879.
Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning by 20,184 votes in 2016. Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez won Somerset in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
In 2017, Somerville Councilman Steven Peter unseated veteran Republican County Clerk Brett Radi by 407 votes; the Democratic Freeholder candidates lost by 1,489 votes.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) became the first congressman from Somerset County since Michael Pappas lost re-election in 1998. He ousted five-term Rep. Leonard Lance in the November 2018 mid-term, carrying the Somerset portion of his district by 8,758 votes (53%-45%).
In total, Somerset County voters cast 60% of their ballots in 2018 for Democratic congressional candidates. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) won her part of Somerset with 70% of the vote.
Two Democratic Assemblymen live in Somerset: Joe Danielson (D-Franklin) and Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough). A third, Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), lives in Middlesex County, but his district is mostly in Somerset County.
Democrats are beginning to build a bench in Somerset, where they’ve made significant gains on the local level.
For the first time, women will hold a majority of seats on the Somerset freeholder board. Sooy is the county’s first Hispanic freeholder and Robinson is the first Black to serve on the board.