In the counties that represent 95% of the state’s population, one political party controls every county office, and voters in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties have little electoral say beyond the primary election of the majority party – if any.
Only Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem have a vibrant two-party system at the county level, where both parties hold county posts and where Democrats and Republicans have a chance to win elections. The other 18 counties – maybe with one or two exceptions – show little hope for the party out of power.
Democrats control all countywide elected positions in Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Passaic, Somerset and Union. Every county elected official in Cape May, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Sussex and Warren are Republicans.
Atlantic County has four county commissioner seats up and an open seat contest for county clerk. Last year, just 370 votes separated two candidates for county commissioner at-large in a contest where ten months later, a recount battle went on for ten months – and is still not official.
Voters in Atlantic’s District 3 county commissioner races face a do-over election of 2020 after a judge was unable to determine a winner. That’s because the county clerk mailed the wrong ballots to 554 votes in a race that was decided by just 286 votes.
Two Democratic commissioners are up for re-election in Cumberland County, which has a 6-1 Democratic majority.
In Salem, where close pluralities are the norm in a county the size of Old Bridge, two GOP commissioners and the Republican sheriff are up for re-election. Republicans have a 4-1 majority on the board of commissioners and the county clerk is a Republican. Democrats hold the surrogate post.
The two big shifts in power in recent years have come in Somerset and Burlington, which went from all-Republican to Democratic control over the last four years.
Democrat Steve Peter ousted GOP county clerk Brett Radi in 2017. That was followed by incumbent Republican freeholders losing two seats in 2018, one in 2019, and their last two seats in 2020.
Somerset Democrats had controlled the freeholder board briefly after Lyndon Johnson’s massive 1964 win. Except for Democrats Frank Nero, who won in 1973, and Michael Ceponis, who succeeded him and won in 1976 and 1979, only Republicans had won freeholder seats in Somerset until 2018. (Ceponis lost to future Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in 1982.)
Now, Democrats have all five seats on the Somerset County Board of Commissioners. They picked up the sheriff post in 2019 and the surrogate in 2020.
In Burlington, Democrats flipped all five freeholders seats in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – the county has become so Democratic that an incumbent freeholder who cut taxes twice lost to a guy who had dropped out of the race after news that he’d been arrested on a domestic violence charge came out. Democrats also gained the county clerk and sheriff position. The last Republican in county government, Surrogate Mary Ann O’Brien, resigned last year to become a Superior Court Judge.
I addition to being the state’s largest county, Bergen was New Jersey’s premier toss-up county for generations with control of county government alternating between Democrats and Republicans for more than 100 years. But Bergen Republicans haven’t won a countywide election since 2013 and lost the county executive post they’d held for 20 of 28 years in 2014.
There have been some blips along the way: Republicans won three freeholder seats in solidly Republican Passaic County in 2009 – they lost them three years later – and now-State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) won twice for county clerk. Democrats won some races for freeholder in Monmouth County in the 2000s, but not in the last 14 years. Ocean County hasn’t elected a Democrat to a countywide post since Paul Brush won in 1989.
In some cases, it’s been a long time since the party out of power won anything.
In Hudson, Ike and Reagan no longer have coattails
A Republican has not won a countywide election in Hudson County since Dwight Eisenhower helped them win four seats in 1956, although two GOP district freeholder candidates won on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1984. Octavio Alfonso and Roger Dorian lasted just one term.
Democrats haven’t lost races in Camden and Middlesex counties since 1991, when Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax hike caused them to momentarily lose control of county government. Camden was politically competitive until the early 1970s. Middlesex had a Republican majority briefly in the Florio years, has remained largely Democratic since David Wilentz took over the party in the 1920s.
Essex hasn’t elected a Republican countywide since County Executive Jim Treffinger won his second term in 1998. The Board of Commissioners has been all-Democratic since 2005, when Linda Lordi Cavanaugh unseated GOP incumbent Muriel Shore by 2,902 votes. The last at-large freeholder victory for the GOP was in 1971, when former State Sen. Geraldo Del Tufo (R-Newark) won a seat.
The GOP hasn’t won a countywide election in Union since 1995 and in Mercer since County Clerk Cathy DiCostanzo won as second term in 2000.
In Gloucester, Republicans snuck up and won two freeholder seats in 2010 but lost them three years later. Despite some close races, Democrats are on a decade-long winning streak.
Morris has seen Democratic gains at the local level in recent years but hasn’t elected a Democrat to countywide office since Douglas Romaine won in the 1973 Watergate landslide.
Democrats haven’t won in Warren since 1997 – Freeholder Ann Stone lost her seat to now State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford) three years later – and the last Democrat to win a countywide race in Sussex was Howard Burrell (now the mayor of Vernon) in 1999. The last Democratic freeholder in Hunterdon, Benjamin Kirkland, lost his bid for a fourth term to Henning Holmgaard in 1982.
The last Democrat to win a countywide race in Cape May is now a Republican: Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis). He was elected to freeholder in 1994 and again in 2000.