The show of force by Ocean County Republicans in the recent U.S. Senate and congressional primaries potentially changes the math for next year’s gubernatorial primary to pick an opponent for Gov. Phil Murphy.
The Ocean GOP organization line produced almost twice as many votes for Hirsh Singh in 2020 than it did for Kim Guadagno in 2017. Since the last gubernatorial primary, Republican voter registration in Ocean has increased by 20%, from 126,980 to 152,670.
Ocean had a 37% turnout in the July 7 primary – about 13 percentage points higher than the total Republican vote statewide.
Singh came out of Ocean County with 39,941 votes (73.5%) and a plurality of 34,217. Ocean represents 11.1% of New Jersey’s total Republican voter registration, but as of now – some counties have still not certified their election results, Ocean made up about 16.2% of the total votes cast in the Senate race.
Ocean enjoys an outsized position in statewide Republican primaries.
To put Ocean in perspective: Donald Trump received more primary election votes in Ocean this month than Joe Biden did in Hudson.
The winner of the GOP U.S. Senate nomination, Rik Mehta, has the backing of seventeen county Republican organizations, but the strength of lines in Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland out him within about 8,000 votes of winning the nomination. One out of four votes cast in the 2020 Senate primary statewide came from Singh’s four-county coalition
In 2017, Ocean made up 10.5% of registered Republicans in New Jersey and 12.4% of the total number of votes cast in the GOP primary for governor.
Ocean endorsed Kim Guadagno for governor in 2017 and she won 60% of the primary vote, leading Jack Ciattarelli (20%) by 12,126 votes.
In the 2018 GOP U.S. Senate primary, Ocean was 11% of the total votes cast and 10.6% of the total number of Republicans.
Bob Hugin received 80% of the vote in Ocean in that race, with a margin of 16,744.
Perhaps more than anywhere in New Jersey, Ocean has become a winner-take-all county. On the Republican side, there’s no place in the state that comes close to the power of the organization line.
The most recent example of party discipline was in the Republican congressional primary in the 3rd district.
Kate Gibbs won a vote of the Ocean GOP screening committee on February 15. Eighteen days later, Richter won the Ocean Republican convention by eight votes, 68 to 60. A switch of five votes might have pushed Richter out of the race.
Within days, Gibbs’ support in Ocean had evaporated as Republican legislators, county and municipal officials switched their support to Richter.
In the recent primary election, Richter won 77.9% of the vote against Gibbs in Ocean County. Richter came out of Ocean ahead by 16,888. In the Burlington portion of the district, Gibbs beat Richter by 13 points, but her 3,832-vote plurality wasn’t even close to being enough.
Mehta had also won the Ocean screening committee, but Singh beat him at the convention with 56% of the vote.
The Lavery Factor
The road to the Republican nomination for governor could be paved through Mike Lavery, a former Republican State Chairman and Hackettstown mayor.
Lavery is the nephew of former Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore, who was widely credited with Richter’s upset convention win.
More importantly for the contest next year is that Lavery is a close politically ally of one of the potential candidates, Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt. Steinhardt named Lavery as one of five GOP members of the Legislative Apportionment Commission, a move that almost assures Ocean a set of eyes in the redistricting process.
Gilmore also has close ties to former White House political director Bill Stepien, a top political advisor to Steinhardt and currently Trump’s campaign manager.
If Steinhardt is able to secure the backing of the current Ocean GOP Chairman Frank Holman III, next year’s Republican convention would not be competitive.
That makes Holman a must-get for Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman from Somerset County and the only announced candidate to take on Murphy so far.
The same goes for Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, who is also taking a particularly serious look at the race, and for Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden. Golden, the Monmouth GOP Chairman, has not ruled running for governor, but has not been as actively pursuing a statewide race as the other candidates have.