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Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Poor Jon Bramnick

Assembly Minority Leader struggles to raise money for caucus while fighting to hold his own seat

By David Wildstein, July 19 2019 9:59 am

The Assembly Republican Victory Committee heads into the general election season with just $321,571 cash-on-hand after raising only $258,083 during the first six months of 2019.

This puts cash-strapped Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) in a tough spot as he seeks to pick up seats and defend vulnerable incumbents – including himself  – in the November general election.

Bramnick faces a tough re-election campaign in the 21st district, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans in a district that has become increasingly more competitive since it was drawn in 2011.   He faces Lisa Mandelblatt, an attorney and teacher who is partly self-funding her race, and former New Providence Democratic Municipal Chair Stacey Gunderman.

Since he became minority leader, the Republican population in the lower house has dropped from 32 to 26.  That’s not entirely Bramnick’s fault, since some GOP legislators lost their seats in Gov. Chris Christie’s second mid-term election.

Pundits on both sides agree that Republicans ought to be in contention to pick up seats in districts 1, 2, 11 and 16.  Instead, the GOP is playing defense again, this time in Gov. Phil Murphy’s mid-term election.  Democrats are more likely to pick up seats in districts 8, 21, and 25 then they are to lose any.

In the 25th, Assembly Republican Conference Leader Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), the number two person in the Assembly GOP leadership, also finds himself in a difficult race.  That comes two years after he won by 2,400 votes.  Bucco was unopposed in 2013, and won in 2009 by 17,719 votes.

Bramnick told POLITICO’s Matt Friedman this week that he has a lot of events scheduled.

“The next report you’ll see a significant increase. Some of its timing. Just when we schedule events,” Bramnick told the political news site.

The challenge for Bramnick is that he’s had twenty months since the 2017 election to raise money and has now waited until the last minute to kick his finance efforts into full gear.  That might make Republicans wonder if he should have done a few less comedy shows and book signings and helped them raise money instead.

The most recent ARV report shows that more than one-third of their expenditures went to fundraising, including some out of state trips that may not have been as fruitful as Bramnick had hoped.  The only apparent campaign expense was $10,000 to the Burlington County Republicans just days before the organization ousted incumbent Joe Howarth (R-Evesham).

Bramnick may need to go into over-drive just to get himself re-elected, something that could give the GOP flashbacks to 2003, when the New Jersey State Senate has 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and both parties were fighting to take absolute control.

The top two Senate Republicans, Co-Senate President John Bennett (R-Little Silver) and Co-Majority Leader Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton), were both battling ethics issues in bids for re-election in districts that were heavily favorable to Republicans.

Bennett faced allegations that he over-billed municipalities for legal work he provided.  Bucco and the state were being sued for sexual harassment after his former chief of staff claimed that he required her to engage in a sexual relationship as a condition of her employment.

Bennett and Bucco, both theoretically in safe seats, were responsible for raising money for other Republican candidates.  Their own ethical issues forced them to spend a combined $1.2 million – a lot of money fifteen years ago — to protect their seats.

Bennett was held to 59% in the Republican primary and then lost the general election to Democrat Ellen Karcher by 4,574 votes.  His 42.5% of the vote reflected in a drop of 16 percentage points from his 2001 total.

Had Bennett, now the Woodbridge township administrator, left the Senate amidst the growing scandal, most observers think the Republicans would have easily held the seat.  Instead, they lost two Assembly seats as well.

Bucco won a third term in the Senate – the election was held before the lawsuit was quietly settled – with 55% of the vote.  That was a 10.4% drop from his 2001 re-election percentage.

The problem for Republicans was that Bennett and Bucco had diverted so much money to their own campaigns that other Republicans were left underfunded.

State Sen. George Geist (R-Gloucester Township) lost his seat by just 63 votes to Democrat Fred Madden.  Democrats had spent over $2 million to beat Geist; at the time, many Republicans believed that money that was spent defending Bennett and Bucco would have saved the 4th district Senate seat.

Had Geist been re-elected, there would have been a Republican with senatorial courtesy in Camden County.

Republicans also fell short in two hotly contested Senate races in Bergen County: the 36th, where recently-appointed State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) was facing former nine-term Assemblyman John Kelly (R-Nutley); and in the 38th, where five-term Assemblywoman Rose Marie Heck (R-Hasbrouck Heights) was challenging State Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Paramus).

The loss of the Bennett and Geist seats gave Democrats a 22-18 majority in the Senate.

Not only did the GOP blow control – either absolute or shared – but there were unintended consequences as well.

When Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned in 2004, a Republican might have been next in line to succeed to the governorship.

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