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Assemblyman Ron Dancer. (Photo: Assembly Minority Office).

An open Assembly seat in New Jersey’s most sprawling legislative district

Dancer’s death sets off a complex set of negotiations over his successor

By Joey Fox, July 25 2022 11:14 am

The sad news arrived this weekend that Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Plumsted) died at the age of 73 after a lengthy illness. A diligent legislator and a champion of New Jersey’s horse racing industry, Dancer has been the subject of tributes from both sides of the aisle in the days since.

And as always happens when a sitting politician dies, the news has set off an awkward shuffle among New Jersey Republicans as they begin jockeying for Dancer’s 12th district Assembly seat while still honoring his death.

The timeframe to replace Dancer is precariously efficient. State law dictates that the Republican county committeepeople representing the 12th legislative district’s four counties meet 7 to 35 days after the vacancy occurs to fill the seat, a period which begins this coming weekend and ends in the final week of August. 

Whomever Republicans choose will immediately take office, but there will also be a special election this November for the remainder of Dancer’s term. Republicans and Democrats will both have until September 13 to choose their nominee for that election, though there’s no reason to think Republicans won’t hold one combined convention to choose both Dancer’s immediate replacement and their November candidate (who will in all likelihood be the same person). 

Since the seat is solidly Republican, the Republican nominee for the seat is near-certain to win in November, giving even higher stakes to the upcoming convention.

The negotiations among and within the district’s four county Republican parties are sure to be intense, and could lead to some unexpected outcomes; the 12th district’s next assemblymember will be the product of the type of alliances, tradeoffs, and backroom deals that are the backbone of New Jersey politics.

Basic arithmetic

The current 12th district is one of the strangest in the state, covering disparate parts of Monmouth, Middlesex, Ocean, and Burlington Counties. (The special election will be held under the current legislative lines, not the new ones adopted earlier this year, although the 12th district changed relatively little during redistricting anyways.)

The current lines of the 12th legislative district (in pink).

By population, around 32% of the district’s residents live in Monmouth County, while 29% live in each of Middlesex and Ocean. Burlington County is a comparatively minor part of the district, representing around 11% of its population.

For the last ten years, the district has balanced its legislative delegation among its three large counties, with Dancer hailing from Ocean, State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge) coming from Middlesex, and Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Matawan) living in Monmouth.

That split is also approximately reflected in each county’s number of county committeepeople, though there are some potentially important discrepancies. Middlesex leads with 104 county committeepeople, or 35% of the total; Monmouth has 98 (33%), Ocean has 80 (27%), and Burlington has just 14 (5%).

Not every county committeeperson will be able to vote, since only those who are directly elected or appointed to fill seats where they live are eligible, a rule that will exclude some unknown number of committeepeople.

Since Dancer hailed from Ocean, and since Ocean County represents nearly 30% of the district in both population and county committee seats, it seems only natural that the Ocean GOP would get to select his successor. This was precisely the deal reached in 2011, when the current 12th district was first drawn: that Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean would all get a seat at the table.

That deal was made largely by Republican Party chairs who are now out of office, however, and their successors might choose not to abide by it. Middlesex GOP chairman Robert Bengivenga, Monmouth GOP chairman Shaun Golden, and Burlington GOP chairman Sean Earlen collectively have enough votes that they may be able to lock Ocean County out entirely.

But all of these considerations are moot without taking into account who leads the Ocean County Republican Party: none other than once-and-future kingmaker George Gilmore.

Gilmore’s influence

In the first era of George Gilmore, which lasted from 1996 to 2019, the Ocean GOP chairman helped turn his county into a colossal Republican redoubt that could make or break the candidacies of statewide Republicans. But after being convicted on federal tax charges in 2019, Gilmore had to step down, and it looked like his reign was over.

Not so. Gilmore got a midnight pardon from former President Donald Trump in 2021, and then stunningly won back the chairmanship of the Ocean County Republican Party earlier this month in a 333-320 squeaker against Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy.

Gilmore now faces the task of reuniting a fractured county party – committeepeople in some parts of the county, especially Lakewood, voted strongly for Mastronardy – and Dancer’s open Assembly seat is the first test of Gilmore’s second era.

Gilmore will naturally want an Ocean Republican to fill the seat, in accordance with the original 12th district agreement, but it may not be so simple. Jackson and Plumsted, the two Ocean towns in the district, don’t have nearly enough votes to get a candidate across the finish line on their own, so alliances will have to be forged.

What’s more, not every Jackson and Plumsted committeeperson is a Gilmore acolyte, meaning that there could be a potential split, with multiple different Ocean candidates competing for the nomination. Jackson in particular has no fewer than three competing Republican factions, and it will be a challenge for Gilmore to unify fractious local political players behind a common goal.

That might lead to a number of different outcomes. Gilmore could forge an alliance with one or more of the other county chairmen to get his preferred Ocean candidate, in exchange for some future concessions later; the other counties could align themselves with an anti-Gilmore candidate from Ocean, thus preserving the county balance while still giving Gilmore a black eye; or Ocean could get completely shut out and the seat would go to Monmouth or Middlesex.

The specter of senatorial courtesy

The true prize in New Jersey state politics, however, is a Senate seat, not an Assembly seat. And thanks to Sam Thompson’s advanced age – he’ll be 88 on Election Day 2023 – the 12th district is likely to have an open race for Senate sometime this decade.

As a resident of Old Bridge, Thompson gives state Republicans something hugely valuable: senatorial courtesy over Middlesex County. Any prospective judge, cabinet official, or state board member from anywhere in the massive, Democratic-leaning county has to get Thompson’s blessing before they can reach the Senate floor.

If and when Thompson leaves the Senate, Republicans will have a major incentive to replace him with another Middlesex candidate; the 12th district is the only Republican-leaning district that includes a significant chunk of Middlesex. A Monmouth or Ocean senator, on the other hand, would be redundant, since both of those counties already have at least one Republican senator from a safe seat.

But the natural progression of New Jersey politics is for members of the Assembly to become senators, and if neither sitting assemblymember is from Middlesex when Thompson departs, that could lead to some awkward questions. 

Will Robert Clifton, diligently toiling away in the Assembly since 2012, let an opportunity to join the Senate pass him by? Will Ocean and Monmouth Republicans really just accept the logic that Middlesex owns the 12th district Senate seat in perpetuity?

The maneuvering for that inevitable fight starts now, with Dancer’s Assembly seat. Gilmore could make a deal with Middlesex Republicans to back a Middlesex candidate for Senate in the future in exchange for a new Ocean assemblymember; alternately, Gilmore could align with Clifton and the Monmouth Republican Party, pledging to support Clifton’s bid for the Senate when the time comes.

There are no clear answers yet. The number of unknowns – how Gilmore will approach the situation, how the other county party chairs will react to Gilmore, who the Assembly candidates themselves might be – is high.

Dancer himself didn’t have an easy road to the Assembly, and it looks like his successor won’t, either.

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