The contest for the Republican nod for State Senate in the second congressional district is a face off between a former assemblyman and one-time congressional candidate with a bone to pick with the New Jersey GOP.
Former Atlantic County Freeholder Seth Grossman is making an off-the-line bid against former Assemblyman Vince Polistina, whom Atlantic County Republicans have backed for the seat held by retiring State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Ventnor City).
The contest is in some ways a microcosm of the battle playing out among Republicans nationally.
Grossman, an unabashedly pro-Trump candidate who lost organizational support over a series of controversial statements during his 2018 bid for Congress, is styling his campaign after the former president.
On social media, he’s focused on the sort of culture issues that have gripped the right wing of the Republican party in the aftermath of Trump’s re-election loss.
On Facebook and Twitter, he has attacked “woke” Democrats and urged a boycott of Coca Cola for its opposition to a set of restrictive voting laws in Georgia.
Polistina’s Facebook page — the former Assemblyman’s Twitter account is largely inactive — is tamer, mostly featuring photos of him and his running mates campaigning, with the occasional shot at Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield), Democrats’ pick for Brown’s seat.
Joe Berg, the former assemblyman’s campaign manager, said Grossman’s wasn’t a huge cause of worry for Polistina’s campaign.
“I don’t believe that there’s much concern at all,” he said. “We’re not going to take any challenge lightly and we’re certainly going to work as hard as Vince has always worked to ensure victory, but Vince again, he’s a proven winner. He’s won in the district before. He understands the real issues that face Atlantic County and District two.”
Grossman has also devoted some digital space to airing grievances against organization Republicans who pulled their endorsements of his 2018 campaign after Media Matters reported he shared posts from a white supremacist website in 2014. The candidate in 2018 said he shared the posts without reading them because they were shared by former Florida Rep. Allen West.
State Republicans and some GOP county leaders cooled their regard of Grossman’s bid when the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News reported he called diversity “un-American,” decried affirmative action and said former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno was only nominated to run against Gov. Phil Murphy because she was a woman. Some county leaders disavowed his campaign entirely.
The wounds left by the saga have yet to mend.
“The Republicans didn’t treat me the way they should have treated me three years ago,” Grossman told the New Jersey Globe. “After the primary, not only did I not get the support, but I was completely undermined by the New Jersey establishment.”
Observers discounting Grossman’s campaign on its face would be mistaken.
The former Atlantic City councilman won a surprise primary victory in 2018, defeating Hirsh Singh 4,840-3,126 — or 51%-33% — in Atlantic County, where Singh had the line. Former Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi won 809 votes, while retired FBI agent Robert Turkavage had 750 ballots cast in his name.
Grossman had no organizational lines in the House primary and is likely to benefit from the makeup of the second legislative district, which is made up exclusively of towns in Atlantic County, where Grossman has practiced law for years.
Since his bid, he has stayed connected to area Republicans through Liberty and Prosperity New Jersey, a non-profit that advocates for conservative policies.
Polistina isn’t without his own advantages. Though he’s been out of office since 2012, he’s making his political comeback with a preferential ballot position.
He and his running mates, former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and former Deputy Attorney General Clair Swift, will appear in a column A with Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Jack Ciattarelli, while Grossman’s name was placed into column E. Put another way, he’s in ballot Siberia.
Save for Grossman’s 2018 win, the Atlantic GOP line has generally held in high profile contests, including for Singh in last year’s U.S. Senate primary and for former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s 2017 gubernatorial bid against Ciattarelli and Singh.
Polistina’s running mates could prove an advantage as well.
“Part of what we’re looking at is the strength of the ticket, part of what Don Guardian and Claire Swift can both bring to the district,” Berg said.
Guardian, for instance, could help bring Republican votes out in Atlantic City, where Democratic candidates typically fare better than their GOP counterparts, Berg said.
Still, the former assemblyman’s campaign has largely stuck to attacks against Gov. Phil Murphy and their Democratic rivals — Mazzeo, Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena) and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick.
That could leave room for them to be outflanked on the party’s Trumpian wing, though the campaign is hoping voters take to Trump-backed policies without hints of the former president’s rhetoric.
“Vince is conservative. He’s pro-Trump,” Berg said. “He’s a small business owner. He’s connected with the voters here. We know what we need to do to win. We know Vince supports law enforcement. Vince supports small businesses. Those are all the same things that President Trump had done, and I think that resonates through Vince and through the base and through the understanding of the district.”
For Grossman, the moderation reeks of tried-and-failed attempts to win complete Republican control in the second District over the last 15 years.
“I keep calling this ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said. “I feel like I’m Bill Murray and the Republicans are doing everything over again until we finally get it right.”