The decision of Thomas Kean, Jr. to not seek re-election to the State Senate this year – possibly to run for Congress – has triggered contests for minority leader in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick is running for Kean’s Senate seat, opening up a contest for his lower house leadership post.
Looming large in these contests is an increasingly solid coalition between Ocean and Monmouth counties, two heavily Republican counties with large delegations.
Three Republicans are widely mentioned as potential candidates to replace Kean: Republican Budget Officer Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), Deputy Minority Leader Robert Singer (R-Lakewood), and Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville).
When it looked like Kean might be winning a congressional seat last year, Singer and Pennacchio made calls seeking support for what might have been a contest for a new minority leader.
None of the three have enough votes to clinch the post, although Oroho appears to be in the lead.
For Assembly Minority Leader, the front-runner appears to be the current minority whip, Ned Thomson (R-Wall). The Monmouth/Ocean block could mean as many as ten votes in a leadership contest – that’s a significant number in a caucus where the best case scenario might be 30 Republicans.
The two minority conference leaders, Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) and John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown), are also actively pursuing votes to succeed Bramnick. Each appear to have about half the number of votes leaning to Thomson.
At least nine Assembly Republicans remain largely uncommitted. There is some connective tissue between some of those legislators, but little likelihood that they will move as a block.
Several Republican lawmakers from both houses told the New Jersey Globe that the election might hinge on whether the minority caucuses – there is no real roadmap to Republican majorities – want leadership to be more partisan, more conservative and more combative next year.
Singer, some legislators say, is viewed as too close to Gov. Phil Murphy, who could be in his second term in January. When Murphy nominated Rachel Wainer Apter, a former American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney and law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to the New Jersey Supreme Court earlier this year, Singer was the first senator of either party to say he would vote to confirm her.
Geography could also play into the decision making.
Since 2012, when Bramnick became minority leader following the sudden death of Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany), both minority leaders are from Westfield in the 21st district.
Singer and Thomson both represent the 30th district, although it’s not an identical situation. Singer is from Ocean County and Thomson from Monmouth, and there’s no guarantee that both will be in the same district after new maps are drawn for the 2023 legislative elections.
If the GOP goes with Oroho and DiMaio, it would concentrate legislative leadership into northwestern New Jersey: Oroho is from Sussex and DiMaio from Warren.
Munoz is seeking to become the first Republican woman to hold a top leadership position since Marion West Higgins (R-Westwood) was Assembly Majority Leader in 1964 and Speaker in 1964.
It’s also not clear how many votes it will take to win either minority leader contest. Democrats think they can flip the 2nd district, where State Sen. Christopher Brown (R-Ventnor) is retiring, and Republicans want to take back the 8th – State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) was elected as a Republican in 2017 and switched parties in 2019 – and hold on to the 16th, where State Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Branchburg) is not seeking re-election.
Both parties are playing in Assembly races in those districts as well.
This is a rare opening in a state where legislative leaders remain in office for extended periods. Kean has been minority leader since 2008 and Bramnick since 2012.
Legislative leadership elections are traditionally held two days after the general election, but that could change. This is the first legislative election under a new law that allows vote-by-mail ballots to come in for six days after Election Day and additional time to cure VBM ballot defects.