State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge), an 87-year-old conservative Republican facing a fierce primary challenge against Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry in his campaign for another four-year term, will switch parties and seek re-election to a fifth term as a Democrat in a heavily-Republican district.
Thompson, who was a Donald Trump delegate in 2016 and 2020, confirmed that he would make his announcement on Monday.
“I don’t feel I am leaving my party,” Thompson said. “I feel my party leadership has abandoned me.”
Some political observers think Thompson has a better chance of winning a general election as a Democrat if he can bring some Republicans with him in November.
Republican leaders had urged Thompson to retire and encouraged Henry, a three-term mayor who is nearly 25 years younger, to run for Senate.
“Our caucus has always supported all of its members, including Senator Thompson,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho and Minority Whip Anthony Bucco. “It’s clear he made a unilateral decision to switch parties without talking to anyone from either side.”
Thompson already had no chance to compete for the Monmouth County GOP organization line after missing the convention filing deadline on Thursday. That left Henry with party support in Monmouth, which makes up roughly one-third of the GOP primary electorate.
It is anticipated that Republican leaders in Middlesex, Ocean, and Burlington will back Henry.
Thompson had slammed Republicans for pushing him out based on age, saying that his cognitive and physical health remain strong.
The party switch increases the Democratic majority in the New Jersey State Senate to 25-15.
The last Republican senator to switch parties and run as a Democrat, Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham), lost her seat to Republican Jean Stanfield in 2021.
A former Middlesex County Republican chairman, Thompson served as an assemblyman for fourteen years before winning a State Senate seat in 2011.
Henry, 63, flipped the Old Bridge mayoralty back to Republicans when he defeated interim incumbent Patrick Gillespie in 2011 by a 53%-47% margin. He was re-elected by fourteen percentage points in 2015 and 2019. Henry had previously served on the school board. Old Bridge is New Jersey’s 21st-largest municipality.
The 12th district is solidly Republican; Thompson was re-elected to his third term in 2021 with 65% of the vote.
In 2017, Thompson faced a primary challenge from Arthur Haney, a former Old Bridge mayor and Middlesex County freeholder. Haney beat Thompson in Old Bridge by 20 votes out of 2,046 cast, but Thompson won Monmouth and Ocean with 65% each, and Burlington, where he was off the line, by 51 votes, which translated into a ten-point win. In the end, Thompson bested Haney by 1,404 votes, 60%-40%. (Haney died in 2018 at age 70.)
Thompson is avoiding the kind of primary that ended the political career of his former running mate, Joseph Azzolina (R-Middletown).
Azzolina had a long career in the legislature, starting in 1965, and served eleven terms in the State Assembly, non-consecutively, interspersed with a two-year sting in the State Senate in the early 1970s’s and an unsuccessful Senate bid in 1987. But by 2005, the 79-year-old Azzolina lost the Republican primary to Amy Handlin (R-Middletown) by 624 votes after Handlin, then a Monmouth County freeholder, replaced him on the line in their home county.
Thompson declined to take sides in the Azzolina vs. Handlin primary, where he was on the ballot for re-election.
“Running on the line with Amy in Monmouth County, it would be inappropriate for me to turn around and try to bang her,” he told PoliticsNJ reporter Steve Kornacki at the time. “And in Middlesex I’m running on the line with Joe, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to bang him either.”
This story was updated on February 13 at 3:56 PM with comment from Oroho and Bucco.