Monmouth County has been Republican territory for more than a hundred years, even though it’s had a Democratic congressman since 1964. But from the bottom up, there is evidence that the county is becoming more politically competitive, and that Democrats might be able to play for two freeholder seats in 2018 if the national political environment is favorable to them this fall.
In county and legislative races, Democrats have had success from time to time. They picked up a freeholder seat in 2006 amidst the backdrop of a national political tide and Operation Bid Rig, another one in 2007 when they convinced John D’Amico, a former freeholder, state senator and judge to run, and took control in 2008 when Barack Obama changed the turnout model.
The issue here is not voter registration. There are just 2,897 more Republicans than Democrats in Monmouth. That number has gotten better for Republicans: in 2009, there were 7,258 more Democrats than Republicans. Nearly half of the voters in Monmouth are unaffiliated (46%) and that group has favored Republican.
The shift to growing the party from the local level took hold after 27-year-old Vin Gopal became Monmouth County Democratic Chairman in 2012. Under his leadership, 31 Republicans have lost to Democrats – including the defeat of the GOP mayor of Howell, the second largest town in the county. In all, eight Republican mayors have been replaced: Allentown, Atlantic Highlands, Matawan, Oceanport, Ocean Township, Shrewsbury and Spring Lake Heights.
Matawan has flipped from 7-0 Republican to 7-0 Democrat, and Eatontown now has no Republican on their local council. Democrats won control in Allentown, Atlantic Highland, Keyport, Ocean Township and Red Bank (which the GOP had won and then lost). Democrats broke through all-GOP control and won seats in Fair Haven, Hazlet, Little Silver, Manalapan and Neptune City. And the Republicans have tried and failed to upset Democratic control in Aberdeen, Belmar, Freehold Borough, Lake Como, Loch Arbour, Marlboro, Manasquan, Neptune Township, Roosevelt, Red Bank, Shrewsbury, and Spring Lake.
Gopal gets much of the credit for all of these local successes.
In 2015, Gopal was the architect of a campaign to flip two Republican Assembly seats when Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling unseated incumbents Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini.
Last year, Gopal ran a brilliant campaign for State Senator and upset three-term Republican incumbent Jennifer Beck. Downey and Houghtaling were re-elected to second terms.
Now Democrats think they can build on the foundation Gopal built over the last five years and break the Republicans 5-0 lock on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders – again, if the Democrats find themselves in a strong political climate.
Last year, Republicans won two freeholder seats — the closest one by 5,960 votes. In the last presidential mid-term election – 2014, a Republican year nationally – the GOP margin was almost double (9,175).
Republican Freeholder John Curley lost Republican organizational support after being censured by his colleagues for harassing county employees. Instead, Monmouth Republicans are running Hazlet Deputy Mayor Sue Kiley. The wildcard here is that Curley is mulling a re-election bid as an incumbent.
To run for the Curley seat, Democrats have recruited a young, charismatic firebrand: Amber Gesslein, the 30-year-old administrator of the New Jersey Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) PAC. The daughter of an IBEW member, she worked on Rep. John Adler’s congressional campaign, for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and at age 25, took one for the team as a sacrificial lamb against two entrenched Republican Assemblymen in Ocean County.
If the national tide swings to the Democrats – and if Curley siphons off some Republican votes – a Gesslein win is entirely plausible.
Democrats have a tougher lift for a second seat. Their candidate, Larry Luttrell, has already lost twice for freeholder and once for Holmdel Township Committee. He will face incumbent Gerald Scharfenberger, a former mayor of Middletown. Scharfenberger was appointed earlier this year to replace Serena DiMaso, who is now an assemblywoman, and is running for the remaining one year of her term.