George Youngkin, the Democratic candidate for Burlington County Freeholder who suspended his campaign last month amidst reports that he was arrested on domestic violence charges in 2006, could still win.
His name will remain on the ballot, along with running mate Felicia Hopson in their bids to unseat Republican incumbents Kate Gibbs and Linda Hughes. Democrats need to win just one of those seats to take 3-2 control of county government.
Before the Burlington County Times made their revelations about Youngkin, Democrats were heavily favored to win control. Democrats have a substantial 38,535 registered voter advantage over the GOP, 116,473 to 77,938, with 119,904 unaffiliated voters.
Generic ballots in polls from both sides show a significant Democratic advantage, and typically voters have little clue who the freeholder candidates are when they vote on Election Day. Republicans, if they want to retain control, are tasked with the responsibility of proactively enhancing Youngkin’s negatives.
Also at stake: GOP County Clerk Timothy Tyler faces a challenge from Joanne Schwartz, a former freeholder.
If voters just vote the Democratic line, Youngkin — nobody else — gets to decide if he wants to decline the office, resign, or serve. The suspension of his campaign does not preclude the possibility that could say that the voters knew of his past, understood that he accepted responsibility and apologized, and elected him anyway.
But if he won and declined, it would be up to the Burlington County Democratic Committee to replace him. Then voters would pick a replacement in a 2019 special election for an unexpired term. Should Youngkin win and Hopson lose, it would give the GOP a shot at regaining control after just ten months.
While it’s unlikely that Youngkin would win without Hopson, it’s still New Jersey where anything can happen.
Gibbs, who works for the Operating Engineers, is widely viewed as an emerging superstar in New Jersey Republican politics. Some GOP insiders say she could emerge as a candidate for Lt. Governor in 2021, or as a cabinet member if Republicans win the governorship. A defeat in 2018 could delay that.
Still, losing a countywide race in Burlington isn’t fatal: Hughes lost in 2017, but remained in office anyway after county Republicans appointed her to replace Ryan Peters, who had been elected to the State Assembly.
The emergence of competitive elections in Burlington has been a long-time coming, and most pundits believe that the exceptional political skills of Republican County Chairman Bill Layton and his predecessor, Glenn Paulsen, have enabled he GOP to last this long.
Republicans have controlled Burlington County for most of the last seven decades. Democrats won control in 1958 and held on to it until 1963. Republicans lost control again in 1964, and won it back in 1966. Democrats took back the Board of Freeholders in 1973, and the GOP took it back for good in 1975.
The GOP has survived some close calls, like in 1989, when South Jersey favorite son Jim Florio carried Burlington by 29,000 votes. The County Chairman then was the legendary Garfield DeMarco, who made sure his Republican Freeholders held on, albeit narrowly. Both parties had their Diane Allen types: Francis “Luke” Brennan, a Democrat who was elected Sheriff in 1958 and went on to serve nine terms; Republican County Clerk Edward Kelly, who beat an incumbent in 1969, survived the Watergate landslide and held the job for 25 years; and Elton Conda, a Republican who was elected Surrogate in 1966 and stayed until his death forty years later. (Conda actually lived in a nursing home for the last few years of his life, working only in the mornings and taking an occasional nap on his office sofa.)
In 2017, Phil Murphy carried Burlington by a 56%-41% margin. Admittedly, that wasn’t Layton’s fault: he thought Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli would make a stronger candidate and didn’t back Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
The retirement of six-term State Sen. Diane Allen allowed Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton to easily move up to the Senate. That too was not Layton’s fault. Allen’s personal popularity was the only reason Republicans held the seat all this time; she was the only Republican to carry the seventh legislative district since 1995.
The big surprise of the night came in the race for Freeholder. Republican Freeholders Bruce Garganio Linda Hughes were unseated by Democrats Tom Pullion and Balvir Singh. Pullion, a former Mayor of Edgewater Park, won by more than 5,000 votes; Singh, a teacher who serves on the Burlington Township Board of Education, beat Garganio by 2,246 votes. Singh accused the GOP of race baiting,
Democrats also came close to a stunning upset in the eighth legislative district, where former Schwartz came within 350 votes of beating Peters for a State Assembly seat. GOP Assemblyman Joe Howarth finished just 645 votes ahead of former Waterford Mayor Maryann Merlino. GOP State Sen. Dawn Addiego was re-elected with only 52% against Youngkin; GOP operatives had not yet advanced their opposition research on him.
Burlington elections became a lot more competitive in 2008, when Barack Obama carried the county by 51,593 votes. Democratic State Sen. John Adler won an open House seat against a weak GOP challenger. Democrats Chris Brown and Maryanne Reinhart upset two Republican Freeholder incumbents, and Democrat Tyler was elected County Clerk.
Layton won huge praise in 2010 when he convinced Freeholder Brown and another rising Democratic star, Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, to switch parties. Former Philadelphia Eagles star Jon Runyan, a candidate Layton recruited personally, defeated Adler and returned the Burlington-Ocean seat to Republican hands. The next year, he flipped Tyler and George Kotch, who had been elected Surrogate in 2006, and took back Reinhart’s freeholder seat.
Obama (58%) and Senator Bob Menendez (59%) had some coattails in 2012, giving Democrats two more Freeholders: Aimee Belgard and Schwartz ousted Garganio and Mary Ann O’Brien. Both lost re-election three years later. Garganio returned to the Freeholder board in 2014 (and lost re-election again) and O’Brien became the Burlington County Surrogate.
While Hillary Clinton was winning Burlington by fourteen points in 2016, local Republicans held on narrowly. O’Brien won her Surrogate race with 51.9%; Robert Tiver took a Freeholder seat with 51.%.