One week has now passed since State Sen. Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton) died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at age 81, and many Republicans – and Democrats – have transitioned beyond the mourning phase and into a demand for clarity in the 25th district race.
Voting has already begun in hotly contested races for two Assembly seats, where the late senator’s son, Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), is seeking re-election to a sixth term. Vote-by-mail ballots were sent out on Saturday.
Bucco has a bunch of political options and he’ll need to pick one of them in the next few days before the choices are no longer his to make.
If Bucco wants his father’s Senate seat, Morris Republican insiders say it’s his for the taking. That would allow him to postpone facing voters until a 2020 special election to fill the remaining fourteen months of his father’s term.
A Bucco withdrawal from the ticket would force a special convention of Republican County Committee members from the district to select a replacement candidate. Since ballots are already being cast, time is of the essence. Switching candidates is also potentially expensive for the GOP, who will be on the hook to reimburse county election officials for the cost of printing and mailing new ballots. Some estimate that tab to be between $40,000 and $70,000.
Bucco can also decide to remain in the Assembly and continue his re-election bid. The Republican County Committee must hold a special election convention between September 23 and October 21 to select a new State Senator.
The third option is a perilous one.
Some Republican insiders want Bucco to effectively do both.
The Senate seat and the Assembly nomination are entirely separate entities.
Bucco could go to the Senate as early as this week while remaining in the Assembly race. That could give Republicans their best chance at holding his seat against Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger.
If Bucco wins – he might not – he could decline the Assembly seat and force a January special election convention to replace him.
One variation of option #3 would be for Republicans to send a caretaker to the Senate who would then step down later to make room for Bucco.
Even if Bucco stays in the Assembly race, there are not assurances that he wins
And while keeping Bucco could save the party the cost of replacing him on the 2019 ballot, it would also create an even more expensive special election for the Assembly seat in 2020.
Bucco was extraordinarily close to his father and his friends say that he hasn’t made a final decision about his plans.
Should Bucco resign from the Assembly to take his father’s Senate seat, the clear choice to replace him is his running mate, Denville Councilman Brian Bergen.
That would make Bergen an incumbent, sort of. It is unlikely that Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin will hold a special session for Bergen to be sworn in before Election Day.
The obvious candidates to replace Bucco on the Assembly ticket are the two Republicans Bergen defeated in the June primary: Aura Dunn, a former district director for Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Harding); and Assistant Morris County Counsel, John Barbarula.
Two other candidates have also been mentioned as replacement candidates: Mendham Township Deputy Mayor Sarah Neibart; Morris County Republican Finance Chairman Craig Heard.
Wharton Mayor Bill Chegwidden, a former Morris County Freeholder who unsuccessfully challenged Bucco in the 2011 State Senate primary, could also emerge as a candidate for Assembly – or in a GOP State Senate primary next year.