The X Factor in the race for State Assembly in the 21st district is the presence of two pro-Trump Republicans running as independent conservatives against GOP incumbents Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and Nancy Munoz (R-Summit).
It’s possible that former Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks and former Springfield Township Committeeman Harry P. Pappas could serve as spoilers in a highly competitive race where Democrats think they can flip two Assembly seats.
That might be their objective.
Semi-surreptitiously, Marks and Pappas say their goal is to force Bramnick, the Assembly Minority Leader, to cuddle a conservative agenda – like embracing his 100% NRA rating rather than run away from it.
But privately, the two conservatives really want to take responsibility for Bramnick’s defeat.
The New Jersey Globe has learned that the conservatives could spent more than $20,000 on their race, although that number won’t be verifiable for several weeks.
The independent campaign is targeting high-propensity Republican voters with a conservative bent in a low-turnout election through digital ads and direct mail. They are aiming their entire campaign at voters who may not appreciate some of the shots Bramnick has taken at Donald Trump.
Marks and Pappas are taking votes only from the incumbents. None of their support is likely to come at the expense of Democrats Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman.
The question will be – and there is no rocket science in this – just how many voters in the off-off-year midterm elections will actually come out and vote for two independent candidates who stand no real chance of winning?
There is no real voter history to definitively answer that.
In the 2018 U.S. Senate race, conservative Tricia Flanagan received 379 votes in the 21st district in her independent bid for U.S. Senate. Bob Hugin, who was Trump’s New Jersey finance chairman, won the district by 5,673.
There are 404 voters registered as member of the New Jersey Conservative Party and the U.S. Constitution Party, but records show that those voters are no more likely to turn out this year than Democrats and Republicans.
The last time Bramnick and Munoz faced a primary challenge was ten years ago and they won by a 3-1 margin. Republican Bruce Meringolo ran from the right and received 2,679 votes.
It’s not clear how many votes Marks and Pappas need to peel away to cost Bramnick his seat.
If it was just Munoz, there would be no campaign. But the six-term assemblywoman might be collateral damage as Marks and Pappas work to take Bramnick down.
Munoz was re-elected two years ago by 1,554 votes over Democrat Lacey Rzeszowski, the second-closest Assembly district in the state that year. Bramnick ran 1,010 votes ahead of Munoz.
What makes these independents worth watching is that they know what they’re doing. They’re not just a just a couple of guys who stood outside the Shop-Rite and collected enough signatures to get on the ballot, although both come from the past and lingering name identification is unlikely.
Marks is a credible independent candidate.
In 2009, he came within 2,089 votes of defeating Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Plainfield) in the next-door 22nd district. Marks raised about $100,000 on his own, without any help from Bramnick, then the number two man in the Assembly Republican leadership.
Marks, who spent twelve years on the Scotch Plains Township Council before moving to Cranford, has sought higher office two other times.
He ran for the State Senate in 2003 against incumbent Joseph Suliga. Hurt by an incident at an Atlantic City casino, Suliga dropped out of the race at the end of September. He was replaced on the ballot by Union County Freeholder Nicholas Scutari, who beat Marks by ten points.
When Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-Warren) retired in 2008, Marks sough the Republican nomination for Congress in the 7th district. He finished fourth in that race with 13% — Leonard Lance won the primary with 39%. Bramnick endorsed Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield, who finished 601 votes ahead of Marks as the two split votes in Union County.
He served as Union County Democratic Chairman in the 1970s, lost a State Senate race in the 1970s, and later switched parties. He served one term as a Township Committeeman in Springfield in the early 1990s.