Fresh off his unsuccessful bid for Congress last year, former Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Paul DeGroot appears to be gearing up for a county commissioner primary campaign against Republican incumbent Tayfun Selen – the very man DeGroot beat in last year’s congressional primary.
The New Jersey Globe has learned that DeGroot’s wife handed out nominating petitions last week at a Republican event in Montville, where DeGroot lives. DeGroot did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If DeGroot does end up running, he would be Selen’s second challenger, alongside Randolph Republican county committeeman Anthony Somma.
Selen, a former mayor of Chatham Township, was first elected as county commissioner in 2020, prevailing in a tight Republican convention fight to replace now-Surrogate Heather Darling; he went on to win the general election 52%-48% even as Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the county since 1964.
Last year, Selen and DeGroot both ran for Congress against Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in the 11th congressional district, a formerly competitive district that was redrawn to be far more Democratic. With county party lines in Morris and Essex Counties, Selen appeared to be the frontrunner in the Republican primary, but DeGroot ended up winning thanks to a huge overperformance in Passaic County.
Despite his narrow loss, Selen still carried the Morris County section of the 11th district by a narrow 40%-36% margin, with three other candidates taking the remainder of the vote. Selen did best in the Chathams and other historically Republican towns that now lean Democratic; DeGroot’s off-the-line campaign, meanwhile, performed well in Montville and its surrounding towns.
DeGroot ultimately lost the general election to Sherrill by 19 points, including a six-point loss in the Morris County portion of the district.
The 11th district includes around 73% of Morris County’s registered Republicans, so DeGroot wouldn’t have too many new voters to introduce himself to. In fact, given his congressional campaign, DeGroot’s name recognition may be higher than that of Selen’s, even in the parts of the county outside of the 11th.
A DeGroot vs. Selen fight, if it does come to pass, would depend heavily on the outcome of the county convention, where Selen isn’t considered a lock for the party line. But whoever wins the line isn’t guaranteed a primary victory, as Mendham Township Committeewoman Sarah Neibart can attest; Neibart won the line last year for a county commissioner seat, but incumbent Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo beat her anyways.
Democrats are unlikely to mount a highly competitive campaign for the seat. Though Morris Democrats have found recent success in federal elections – Sherrill and former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) collectively won the county last year – they’ve struggled to break through on a state and local level. They’re more likely to put up a strong fight in 2024, when two commissioner seats will be on the same ballot as the presidential election.
If DeGroot runs for commissioner, that would take his name out of contention for a legislative campaign in the 26th legislative district. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) and two incumbent assemblymen are running for re-election, and Mastrangelo is mulling a campaign against them.
Pennacchio, for his part, has experience turning a dramatic congressional loss into a long career in politics, something DeGroot may hope to emulate. In 1994, Pennacchio got just 27% of the vote in a Republican primary against 11th district Rep. Dean Gallo (R-Parsippany), but he won a race for county freeholder in 1998 and made the leap to the Assembly in 2001.