Home>Campaigns>Mercer Democrats dumped Wayne DeAngelo. Now what?

Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Mercer Democrats dumped Wayne DeAngelo. Now what?

DeAngelo will still appear in Democratic column; Middlesex convention coming this Wednesday

By Joey Fox, March 06 2023 3:40 pm

When elected officials and county committeemembers walked into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Princeton yesterday for the 2023 Mercer County Democratic convention, the room was abuzz with chatter about the race for county executive between incumbent Brian Hughes and Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton). 

But when they left two-and-a-half hours later, an entirely different subject was on their minds: what the hell just happened to 14th district Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton)?

In a huge surprise, Mercer Democrats narrowly voted to dump the eight-term incumbent from their official line, instead backing two other candidates, Rick Carabelli and Tennille McCoy, for the 14th district’s two Assembly seats. Thanks to a Mercer Democratic rule allowing candidates to remain in the party column if they pass a certain threshold of support, however, all three will still appear in the same column on the primary ballot itself.

On Wednesday, Middlesex Democrats – who cover around 40% of the district – will meet for their own convention. Their decision will provide some clarity in the race, and perhaps end the three-candidate dalliance entirely.

But for now, the situation is chaotic and unprecedented, with no one sure how things will shake out. Here’s an attempt at handicapping what went down yesterday, and what might happen in the coming weeks.

Why did DeAngelo lose the line?

Going into yesterday’s convention, the widespread assumption was that DeAngelo – who is also the president of the powerful Mercer/Burlington Counties Building Trades Council – was safe for party support for another term, while Carabelli and McCoy would duke it out for the seat left open by Benson.

But on the ballot that county committeemembers were given, all three candidates appeared as equals, with no differentiation between “DeAngelo’s seat” and “Benson’s seat.” County committeemembers evidently voted as if it were a true three-way race, and DeAngelo ended up being the odd man out; Carabelli finished first with 120 votes, McCoy in second with 111, and DeAngelo in third with 106.

Right after the results were announced, DeAngelo had an explanation for what had gone wrong: Dan Benson. Benson, who has long had a bad relationship with DeAngelo, won the party endorsement for county executive in a landslide, getting 78% countywide against Hughes and reportedly north of 90% in the 14th district’s towns.

Given those results, the schism between the assemblymen may have cost DeAngelo, a Hughes backer, crucial support.

“Dan and his team have done a great job,” DeAngelo said. “Dan’s supporters supported Dan, and today, they didn’t support me.” 

It’s also important to recognize that DeAngelo, a moderate Democrat who abstained on a bill codifying abortion access into state law, is out of step with the party faithful in some key ways. Both Carabelli and McCoy pitched themselves as mainstream liberal Democrats in their nominating speeches, with Carabelli specifically citing the issue of abortion – likely a more appealing message to some Democrats than DeAngelo’s more centrist style.

And finally, there’s the simple fact that, like everyone else, DeAngelo didn’t think he was in any real danger; he hadn’t been working the phones of county committeemembers the way Carabelli and McCoy had.

Now that he knows the threat to his seat is real, that complacency won’t last. DeAngelo initially said he was undecided about staying in the race, but he confirmed today that he’ll continue his campaign – presumably with more vigor than he’s displayed thus far.

What will the ballot look like?

In most counties, DeAngelo’s third place finish would be the end of his time on the county line; Mercer Democrats would rally behind McCoy and Carabelli, their official party-line choices.

But Mercer Democrats have a rule that allows candidates who receive at least 40% support at the convention to share the party column, even without the formal organization line. No one seemed quite sure yesterday how the 40% rule worked in a three-way race for two seats – some have suggested that a runoff should have taken place – but all three candidates received votes on more than 50% of the 195 total ballots cast.

What will likely happen, assuming all three candidates continue their campaigns and file for the primary, is McCoy and Carabelli get the official party slogan (“Regular Democratic Organization”) while DeAngelo also appears in the party-line column but gets an alternate slogan like “Mercer County Democrats.”

A 2020 Democratic primary ballot in the 4th congressional district, with Christine Conforti and Stephanie Schmid sharing the party column (but only Conforti getting the party slogan).

As a primary election from 2020 shows, voters don’t really know what to do in such cases. That year, two 4th congressional district candidates shared the Mercer Democratic line, and according to Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin, 34% of all voters cast votes for both candidates. In other words, many voters simply vote the line and don’t know how to react when given an open choice between multiple candidates in the party column.

There won’t be nearly that many overvotes this year, because that can only happen on paper ballots; the 2020 primary was conducted entirely by mail ballots, while this year most votes will be cast on machines that don’t allow overvotes. Nevertheless, three candidates appearing in the same column for two spots would definitely confuse some voters, and minor details like whose name appears first could be consequential.

(For what it’s worth, the true Mercer Democratic Party-endorsed congressional candidate in 2020, Christine Conforti, won the 4th district’s Mercer County portion 57%-32%. In addition to getting the official party slogan, her name also appeared first on the ballot.)

What might happen at the Middlesex convention?

All of these discussions could be moot, depending on the results of Wednesday’s Middlesex County Democratic convention.

DeAngelo is expected to get the Middlesex line for one of the two seats (though as the Mercer convention showed, nothing can be taken for granted). Barring another unexpected result, the fight will probably be between McCoy and Carabelli for the other seat – and Middlesex has no column-sharing rule, so there will be two definitive winners and one definitive loser.

The choice between Carabelli and McCoy is not one that Middlesex Democrats wanted to make. The 14th district is more of a Mercer County district, and all three Assembly candidates are from Mercer’s Hamilton Township.

But choose they must, and the race could take clearer shape from there. Even with the confusing situation on the Mercer County ballot, the Middlesex line will provide a clear advantage to two candidates while shutting the third out from a big cache of votes.

If Carabelli or McCoy loses the Middlesex convention, particularly if the result isn’t close, they may choose to end their campaign rather than wage an uphill battle against the line. And if DeAngelo somehow loses Middlesex, he should probably pack his bags and go.

Then what?

Forecasting anything beyond the next few days is tough, and perhaps not very useful. The nature of the 14th district race – in fact, whether it ends up being a race at all – depends heavily on what DeAngelo chooses to do and how Middlesex Democrats vote at their convention.

Still, it’s worth noting a few other factors that could come into play as Democrats deliberate how to proceed.

One of them is Brian Hughes. The incumbent county executive may have lost the party line in a rout yesterday, but he pledged to continue his campaign, and he may be looking for allies to join his column in the fight against Benson.

DeAngelo, backing off his prior support for Hughes, endorsed Benson today. But with the county executive scrounging for partners – and with South Jersey Democrats itching for DeAngelo to challenge 14th district State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) – some unusual alliances could still form down the road.

There’s also the question of diversity. The Italian American Carabelli is more in line with historical representation in the 14th district, which has never been represented by a legislator of color. The district is now only 54% white, however, and has significant Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations, giving McCoy (who is Black) a compelling message about representing the area’s diverse communities.

That’s particularly true in Middlesex County, which, despite being one of the most diverse counties in the entire country, has an overwhelmingly white legislative delegation. Should McCoy win, she’d become the only Black legislator representing any part of the county in 2024.

One last X factor is how other prominent Democrats, both local politicians like Greenstein and statewide figures like Gov. Phil Murphy, choose to proceed. 

The 14th district could host a competitive race if Republicans have a good election year, and Democrats probably want to avoid a drawn-out, messy primary. If leading Democrats decide to rally around two candidates, that could spell the end for the third candidate’s campaign.

For now, any discussions of what the 14th district race will look like, and what Mercer’s bizarre convention results mean, have to be couched in ifs and maybes. Soon, the picture will begin to take clearer shape – with one of DeAngelo, Carabelli, or McCoy drawing the short straw.

This story was updated at 5:04 p.m. with information from a statement from DeAngelo endorsing Benson and confirming he’ll run for re-election. It was updated again at 8:54 a.m. on March 7 with a correction: DeAngelo abstained on the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act; he did not vote against it.

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