Republicans may be on the verge of political extinction in Mercer County, where a toxic race in Hamilton Township could leave Hightstown Councilman Lee Stults and Hopewell Borough Council President Schuyler Morehouse as the only Republicans elected to municipal office in a partisan election.
Democrat Brian Hughes is a sure bet for re-election for a fifth term as Mercer County Executive in his race against Republican Lisa Wu.
The two Democratic freeholders, Andrew Koontz and Nina Melker, are running unopposed in a county where there are 71,512 more Democrats than Republicans – 44%-15%.
Republicans occupied the Mercer County Executive office for 24 years, starting in 1979, when Bill Mathesius upset Democrat Arthur Sypek, until Hughes win in 2003.
Hughes defeated County Clerk Cathy DiCostanzo by 1,673 votes that year and hasn’t dipped below 63% since.
Hamilton Township is one of the most closely-watched council races in the state in a place that has been New Jersey’s quintessential swing town for decades.
The Republican incumbent, Kelly Yaede is deeply flawed, and Democrats picked their best possible candidate in Council President Jeff Martin, an Air Force veteran. Still, the race appears to be a toss-up in a town that has often left outsiders puzzled by how residents cast their votes.
Yaede has fancied herself as a modern-day Jack Rafferty, the popular former Republican mayor who held the job for 24 years before his retirement in 1999, but she lacks the people skills that made Rafferty a Hamilton icon.
After Rafferty came Democrat Glen Gilmore, who won with great statewide fanfare in 1999 and then fizzled. Republican John Bencivengo beat him in 2007, won re-election in 2011, and then was succeeded by Yaede in 2013 following his criminal conviction.
Martin was elected to the council in 2017 when Democrats picked up three seats by over 1,000 votes. They have a 3-2 majority now.
Democrats have a significant registration edge over Republicans, 35%-20%, but there are few places in New Jersey that are more adept at splitting their ticket than Hamilton. That’s a long way to say registration numbers don’t matter much.
Yaede won with 59% in 2015. Hillary Clinton took 53% against Donald Trump in 2016 and Phil Murphy carried Hamilton by the same percentage one year later.
Bob Menendez won Hamilton with 51% in 2018, and for the first time since 1978, Rep. Christopher Smith didn’t carry the town, albeit by just 242 votes.
Part of the problem for Hamilton Republicans is that they still celebrate the ghosts of the pasts. Rafferty and former State Sen. Peter Inverso, now in their 80s, are still running point on many of their local campaigns.
Inverso sought a return to politics in 2013 in a bid for the Senate seat he gave up in 2007, and lost Hamilton to incumbent Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) by 377 votes – a stunning rebuke to the onetime giant who ousted the venerable Francis McManimon in 1991.
Earlier this year, the Mercer County Prosecutor accused Yaede of deliberately publishing records against her GOP primary opponent that she knew had been expunged. The charges were dismissed, but the damage may have taken its toll.
Yaede got into a fight with the state VFW Commander over veterans issues, causing a retired Air Force general to lecture her on the U.S. Constitution.
She also tried to remove Mercer County GOP Chair Lisa Richford, who dumped Yaede from the organization line, but failed. The divide among Republicans caused GOP Councilwoman Ileana Schirmer to publicly call for Yaede’s defeat.
The Trentonian reported in September that prosecutors had seized laptops during a search of the Hamilton municipal building.
Along with Yaede, Republicans are defending their last two council seats.
Schirmer and Ralph Mastrangelo are not seeking.
Democrats Pat Papero, a Mercer County sheriff’s officer, and teacher Nancy Phillips are running with Martin. Republicans Richard Balgowan, who served as public works director under Gilmore, and Vincent Capodanno, a former councilman and Teamsters union official, are running with Yaede.
Hopewell Township: One incumbent from each party are competing for seats on the township committee.
Mayor Kristin McLaughlin, a Democrat, and Republican John Hart, are running for re-election. McLaughlin is running with Courtney Peters-Manning, the general counsel at the Cambridge School.
Businessman Edward Jackowski is running with Hart, who has served on the governing body since 1996. In 2018, Jackowski won 43% of the vote against Democrat Julie Blake.
Hart was the top vote-getter in 2016.
Hightstown: Democrat Joshua Jackson and Steven Misiura are unopposed in their bids for re-election to the Common Council. In a race for an unexpired term, Democrat Joseph Cicalese, a Planning Board member, is squaring off against Republican James Eufemia, the former Hightstown police chief.
Patricia Egan, a Republican who was appointed to replace Connor Montferrat earlier this year, ran in the primary for a full term and then dropped out.
Lawrence: Democratic incumbents Cathleen Lewis and Michael Powers are running with John Ryan.
A third Democrat, David Maffei, had decided earlier this year not to seek re-election. He resigned from the council on October 24.
Lewis is a fixture in local politics. She’s worked for several governors and former Rep. Rush Holt and is now a staffer at the state Board of Public Utilities. Powers has been on the council since 2003.
They face Republicans Robert Pluta, the owner of Leonardo’s Restaurant, realtor Philip Joseph Vinch III, and Joseph Vinch, the 26-year-old owner of Honest Stu’s pawn shop.
East Windsor: Longtime Mayor Janice Mironov, now the Mercer County Democratic Chair, heads a ticket that includes incumbents Marc Lippman, Peter Yeager and John Zoller. They face Republicans Paul Hummel, Vincent Stottlemyer, Anna Lustenberg and Steven Uccio.
In 2015, the Democrats won by more than 1,000 votes in a race that Hummel and Uccio ran in.
Robbinsville: Two slates of Township Council candidates are competing in a non-partisan local election.
Incumbents Dan Schuberth, Christine Ciaccio and Ronald Witt face challengers Roland Allen, Paul Kranz and Rajhi Upadhyay.