Facing a Democratic Party that has grown its strength through years of total control of government in the state’s most populous county, Bergen Republicans have backed a series of controversial candidates whose baggage could doom them at the polls in November.
Robert Kugler, their candidate for sheriff, faces criminal corruption and official misconduct charges related to his allegedly providing police escorts for a funeral home he owns. Local law bars police escorts for for-profit entities.
Should he win, he’d be the first Republican to hold do so since Michael Saudino won the seat in 2013, though Saudino later defected to the Democratic Party.
They’ve tapped Bridget Kelly, the former Gov. Chris Christie deputy chief of staff who sent the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that signaled the launch of the Bridgegate scandal, to run for county clerk.
Edward Durfee, one of the Republican picks for Assembly in the heavily Democratic 37th legislative district, belongs to the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia that allegedly played a role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol
Durfee appeared in Washington that day and has denied entering the building. Videos and photos reviewed by WNYC appear to back that up.
His running mate, Perley Patrick, is not a member of the Oath Keepers but supports the group.
Then there’s Michael Koontz, the only Republican seeking the 37th district’s Senate seat. The bid for public office is Koontz fifth, though it’s his first as a Republican. He isn’t running under the Bergen County Republican Organization’s slogan.
The others were made as an independent “NJ Conservative” that challenged some of New Jersey’s reddest Republicans, including former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, from the right.
Their candidates in the 36th district were knocked off the ballot by a challenge to their nominating petitions. Alfonso Mastrofilipo and Jerry Taylor, Republicans running for Assembly in the 38th district, barely squeaked by their own petition challenge.
Bergen County Republican Chairman Jack Zisa acknowledged difficulties in the 37th district.
“They weren’t handpicked candidates. They were candidates that were eager to run for office and they were pretty much unopposed,” he said. “No one else had the desire to run in district 37.”
He spoke highly of Durfee anyway, calling him a “mild-mannered guy with strong beliefs.”
“Certainly, in this great country we live in, we don’t squelch people’s beliefs,” he said. “We may not all have the same exact beliefs in things, but we certainly have the right to express them. We have the right to debate them. We have the right to feel the way we do.”
The Republican chairman charged the challenges against Kugler, the candidate for sheriff, were political.
“Do you know the reason that the police department escorts? So that people don’t get hurt. So that when a funeral procession drives through a red light that they don’t have a serious accident,” he said. “My point is that Kugler gets charged when he announces that he’s running for sheriff. Isn’t that coincidence?”
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal unveiled charges against Kugler in March, about six weeks after the Saddlebrook Police chief announced he’d seek to oust Sheriff Anthony Cureton.
Zisa hoped voters would look past Kelly’s involvement in Bridgegate, something Bergen County Clerk John Hogan, who launched his campaign with the George Washington Bridge in the background, will try to prevent.
“Yea, there’s no doubt that she sent an email. There’s no doubt, but that’s not her story. That’s not her experience. That’s not her service to the public,” he said, adding Kelly was connected to portions of Bergen County through years spent as an aide, and eventually chief of staff, to former Assemblyman David Russo (R-Ridgewood).
The demographic reality in Bergen means any Republican candidate would have trouble winning those races. The party hasn’t won any countywide contests in Bergen since 2013, and they’ve not won a race in the 37th since the state adopted its 40-district map in 1973.
In 2010, Republicans took three seats on what was then Bergen’s Freeholder board, securing a 5-2 majority, their first in almost a decade. They took the county executive seat the same year.
Kathleen Donovan would lose that position to Freeholder James Tedesco, now the county executive, four years later. By then, the Republican majority had thinned, and Democrats again held five of the board’s seven seats.
They won complete control of the body in 2016 and have only expanded their dominance in the county in the years since.
As of April 1, there were 114,040 more Democrats than Republicans in Bergen County. That number was just 56,383 in 2010. It’s not likely a rightward lurch will win Bergen Republicans any prizes.
“Is it a move to the right or a move into obscurity?” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “I really don’t mean to be pejorative about it, but I guess as a party loses more and more races over the years, they can lose their focus. You lose a sense of competitiveness, so there’s a temptation to try something new.”
This year’s Republican candidates are likely cause for little worry among county Democrats, though they could prove fatal to Jack Ciattarelli, the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Ciattarelli and the other Republican gubernatorial candidates — Hudson County pastor Phil Rizzo, former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh — will need votes out of Bergen to win a statewide contest.
They don’t need to carry the county, but they cannot afford a blowout.
In 2009, Chris Christie became the first Republican to win a statewide election without carrying Bergen County. But he lost by just 5,940 votes out of 252,546 cast, and might have won Bergen if Gov. Jon Corzine hadn’t picked popular State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) as his running mate.
Eight years later, Democrat Phil Murphy won Bergen by 34,361, a 15-point blowout.
That puts the eventual nominee in a tricky position: Do they alienate general election voters by running with these candidates — Ciattarelli has the line in Bergen — or do they alienate Republican primary voters and hope the impact is small enough to leave the race’s outcome unchanged.
“You don’t want to send that signal to primary voters,” Rasmussen said. “Obviously, he’s not facing a serious primary challenge, but you really do want to be careful of sending that kind of a message because then you could get more of a protest vote in the primary, which is not what you want either.”
Murphy’s campaign has already issued repeated calls for Ciattarelli to disavow Durfee, ones the Republican frontrunner has so far sidestepped. Most recently, he told News 12 New Jersey the decision lay with the Bergen GOP, not him.
That’s true. The county committee decides who gets the line, though Ciattarelli has say over his position on the ballot.
He could pull himself out of the Republican organization column to avoid bracketing with a candidate he doesn’t support, as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker did last year to avoid appearing on the line with House candidate Amy Kennedy in Atlantic County.
But Zisa said he didn’t believe Durfee’s position should harm Ciattarelli.
“He works very hard. He’s a veteran. What I know of him, he’s a very kind man,” he said of Durfee. “The raps that he’s taken are only because he’s got a title that people have tagged him with, and let’s face it, the Murphy people should be ashamed to say things about an individual they have no knowledge of.”