The battleground for the 2019 elections at the local level is Somerset County, where Democrats are trying to wrest control of the Board of Freeholders for the first time 1964 when they won on the coattails of Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide win over Barry Goldwater.
Somerset County now has 17,928 more Democrats than Republicans, a dramatic reverse over the last decade when the GOP had a voter registration edge.
Over the last couple of years, Democrats have made enormous gains.
They elected a Democratic County Clerk, Steven Peter, in 2017 and ousted two Republican freeholders last year. The GOP majority has gone from 5-0 to 3-2.
The battle for control on Tuesday is between two former Green Brook mayors and longtime rivals, Republican Pat Walsh and Democrat Melonie Marano.
Walsh is seeking re-election to a fifth term as freeholder. Twelve years ago, she defeated Marano by just 1,867 votes, 51.5%-48.5%.
Democrats also have a shot at electing a sheriff.
The Republican incumbent, Frank Provenzano, is retiring after eighteen years. The race to succeed him pits North Plainfield Police Chief Bill Parenti against Democrat Darrin Russo, a retired Franklin police lieutenant who won 49% against Provenzano three years ago.
Parenti just barely won the Republican primary over retired sheriff’s officer Tim Pino, who is backing the Democratic candidate.
The police union endorsements have gone to Russo.
Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning by 20,184 votes in 2016. Gov. Murphy, who has made numerous campaign appearances in the county, and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez won Somerset in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Hands down, the most fascinating race in Somerset County is in Rocky Hill, population 682, where nobody is running for one of the seats on the borough council.
Councilwoman Rasheeda Pretto was appointed to fill a vacant seat earlier this year, but is instead running for a three-year full term instead of in a special election for the seat she holds now.
Nobody filed for that seat, which is not a huge deal in a municipality where voters are accustomed to write-in campaigns and electing independent candidates for the seven-member governing body.
It’ also not unusual in Rocky Hill to have no one stand for election for a seat on the Borough Council in a place where elected officials come and go with unusual frequency.
In 2016, Independent Philip Kartsonis was the lone candidate for two seats in the general election. Mark Sibley was elected as a write-in.
Pretto is running with Democrat Jenn Walsh for two open seats. Sibley is not running again.
Bridgewater: Council President Matt Moench faces Democrat Jeff Brookner, a school board member.
Bridgewater has slightly more Republicans than Democrats — 31%-29% — and has given pluralities to Democratic candidates in recent elections, although not at the local level.
Since Democrat James Dowden declined to seek re-election sixteen years ago, Republicans have swept mayoral and council races.
Hillary Clinton carried the township by 172 votes over Donald Trump in 2016, but Kim Guadagno won Bridgewater by 1,446 votes in 2017. In 2018, local voters split the top of their ticket: Bob Hugin won it by 719 while Tom Malinowski’s margin was 1,225.
Moench is the favorite, although he may lose some Republicans still angry about the GOP primary where he ousted incumbent Dan Hayes by more than 1,000 votes – a 26-point win.
Bridgewater Republicans voted in February to endorse Moench, but the Somerset County Republican organization decided to give their line to Hayes.
Moench has been a councilman since 2008 and served as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie in 2016. He is a former assistant commissioner of Banking and Insurance.
Two seats are up on the all-Republican council, where Republicans Michael Hirsch and Timothy Ring face Democrats John Arcoleo and Patti Selikoff. Incumbent Christine Rose Henderson was defeated in the Republican primary.
If Kirsch wins, it would mean a political comeback of sorts. He was a township committeeman in Green Brook and a former deputy mayor before moving to Bridgewater.
Libertarian Gregg Mele is also on the ballot for mayor.
Four years ago, Hayes defeated Democrat Nidhi Makhija by a 2-1 margin.
Bernards: Once a Republican stronghold, Bernards Township has become a GOP-leaning town in recent years – except on the local level.
Hillary Clinton edged out Donald Trump by 117 votes in 2016. The following year, Kim Guadagno carried Bernards in the race for governor by 1,055 votes over Phil Murphy.
Voters split their ticket in 2018. Democrat Tom Malinowski a narrow 93-vote plurality over five-term Rep. Leonard Lance last year, while GOP U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin outpolled incumbent Bob Menendez by 1,279 votes.
Last year, Democrat Joan Bannan Harris broke the all-hold on the Republican Township Committee. Now Democrats are trying to add a second seat following the retirement of incumbent Carol Bianchi.
The GOP picked a strong and well-connected candidate, Somerset County Republican State Committeewoman Janice Fields, to run for the open seat. Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt was in Bernards on Saturday campaigning for her.
Fields faces Democrat Sophia Chadda, a periodontist and a board member of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge – a growing and influential constituency in Bernards.
Independent Todd Edelstein, a former East Orange police officer and a union plumber, is also running.Strong voter turnout in Bernards is critical to the re-election prospects of Assembly incumbents Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz. In 2017, Bramnick won Bernards by 1,124 votes.
Warren: Republican Jolanta Maziarz was appointed in June to replace the Carolann Garafola, a legendary eight-term township committeewoman who spent six years as mayor. An attorney for several local planning and zoning boards, this is Maziarz’s first election.
Maziarz faces Democrat John Patrick Fahy, a 29-year-old member of the Watchung Hills Regional High School Board of Education, is making his third bid for the Township Committee. He lost by about 900 votes in 2017 and 1,000 in 2018.
An independent candidate, Rick de Pinho, won the endorsement of the local newspaper, The Echoes Sentinel. De Pinho ran on the Democratic ticket with Fahy in 2017 and lost by more than 900 votes,.
Like Bernards, turnout in Warren is a big deal for Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz. No other municipality produced a bigger margin for the two Republican legislators than Warren.
Manville: The former industrial town, named because it housed employees of the Johns-Manville asbestos manufacturing plant, has been a swing town for decades. Voter registration is almost evenly divided between the two parties: 29% Democratic and 27% Republican.
In recent years, Manville has leaned Republican.
Donald Trump won 59% of the vote in Manville in 2016, Kim Guadagno beat Phil Murphy there by a 2-1 margin, and Darryl Kipnis outpolled Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman by more than 200 votes.
Republican Mayor Richard Onderko is seeking re-election to a second term against Democratic Councilman Philip Petrone.
Democrat Ronald Skirkanish is seeking re-election to a borough council seat. He’s running with Roberta Walters, who is looking to take Petrone’s seat. The GOP candidates are Ted Petrock and Suzanne Maeder.
Hillsborough: This is a Republican town, except when it’s not.
Hillsborough went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, for Republican State Sen. Kip Bateman and Democratic Assembly candidates Andrew Zwicker and favorite son Roy Freiman in 2017, and for Tom Malinowski against Leonard Lance.
Mayor Frank DelCore is seeking re-election against Democrat Jeffrey Wright.
DelCore has been on the governing body for twelve years. Wright ran for the township committee in 2018 and came within 132 votes of defeating Republican Olivia Holmes.
Bernardsville: The hometown of Millicent Fenwick has become a swing town in recent years – Hillary Clinton and Kim Guadagno both carried it — and now has a Republican mayor and a split 3-3 borough council.The lone Somerset County municipality in the 25th district, it is exactly the kind of place Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger need to win to flip two Assembly seats.
Republican Kevin Sooy switched parties in 2018 and initially said he would seek re-election as a Democrat, but personal issues forced him to drop out of the race. His daughter, Sara Sooy, was elected as a Democrat last year.
With neither of GOP incumbents seeking re-election, Bernardsville is now a control election.
Republicans are running Jena McCredie, an IT director at Novartis, and Housing, Property and Zoning Compliance Committee Chairman Chad McQueen to hold their two seats. The Democratic candidates are longtime soccer coach Kerry Haselton and Peter Birnbuam, a former councilman.
Watchung: Control of the borough council is at stake in Tuesday’s election.
Democrats won a mayoral race and two council seats in 2018, leaving Republicans with a 4-2 majority. Two Republican seats are up this year.
Incumbent George Sopko is running with Amber Murad, who is seeking an open seat after Councilman William Nehls decided not to see re-election. They face Democrats Peter Martino and Wendy Robinson.
2018, Democrat Keith Balla was elected Mayor by 159 votes, and Democrats took the two council seat by 250 and 169 votes, respectively.
Sopko and Nehls ran unopposed in 2016.
Bound Brook: Republican Mayor Robert Fazen faces a challenge from Democratic Council President Abel Gomez. Frazen, a West Point graduate and retired Army Colonel, defeated Democratic Councilman Anthony Pranzatelli by a little more than 50 votes.
Pranzatelli is seeking re-election to his borough council seat this year, along with incumbent Robert Dixon. They face Republicans Richard Jannuzzi and Jake Hardin.
Montgomery: Republicans are defending their last two township committee seats in a town Hillary Clinton won with 64% of the vote.
Incumbents Ed Trzaska and Kamran Quraishi face Democrats Kent Huang and Devra Kennan.
Quaraishi was been appointed twice to the township committee.
He filled a vacancy in 2018 and then lost his bid for a full-term by 1,757 votes in the same election that Mayor Christine Madrid – now a 16th district Assembly candidate – lost by 1,261.
After the election, Quaraishi was appointed to fill another vacant seat.
South Bound Brook: Democratic Mayor Chris Shoffner faces a challenge from Republican Silvia Vega-Santos in a town where Hillary Clinton won 66% of the vote.
The lone Republican on the Sound Bound Brook Borough Council, Katie Kelly, faces a challenge for re-election.
Democratic Councilwoman Kathleen O’Connor is running with Roy Raminarine. Kelly’s running mate is Bruce Blumenthal.
Bedminster: Two seats on the all-Republican Township Committee are up this year. Republicans won in 2018 by nearly 600 votes.
Incumbent Douglas Stevinson is running with Gina Lisa-Fernandez. The Democratic candidates are Zaheer Jan and Jeffrey Beyer.
Stevinson won by nearly 900 votes in 2016,
Republican Staci Santucci is not a candidate for re-election.
Franklin Township: Hillary Clinton won 73% of the vote in Franklin Township in 2016 and the day of Republicans putting together local coalitions to win ended when popular Mayor Brian D. Levine moved up to the Somerset County Board of Freeholders.
Mayor Phil Kramer, a Democrat, faces a challenger from Republican Beverly Briggs-Lawson, who served as a Marine Corps sergeant in Desert Storm.
Kramer unseated Levine’s appointed successor, Christopher Kelly, with 61% of th vote.
Three at-large seats on the Township Council are also up. Incumbents Kimberly Francois, a former mayor, and Crystal Pruitt are seeking re-election on a ticket with Sivaraman Anbarasan. Anbarasan is seeking the open seat created by the departure of Councilman Rajiv Prasad.
Prasad had initially announced that he would challenge Kramer in the Democratic primary, with withdrew after the filing deadline. Last year, the council had censured him for, among other things, telling a defendant to visit a judge at his office to help influence the outcome of a case.
Republicans Sam Velu, Noah Fofanah and Christina Ganzer-Zambri.
Branchburg: The hometown of State Sen. Kip Bateman and the base of a respected political family that has dominated Somerset County politics for 60 years, is solidly Republican.
In a race for two Township Committee seats, incumbents Thomas Young and Robert Petrelli face Democratic challengers Peter Nejad and Monica Lazar.
Far Hills: With less than 1,000 residents – one of them is former Gov. Thomas Kean – Far Hills remains heavily Republican. Incumbents David Karner and David Robert Surks face Democratic challengers Johanna McCarter, the Democratic municipal chair, and Amy Pressler.
Green Brook: Look for a spike in turnout in this Republican-leaning township, where two former mayors face off in a race that will decide control of county government.
In a race for one seat on the Township Council, incumbent Gerald Searfoss faces Democrat Linda Bolton, a political newcomer.
Searfoss has been a councilman since 2006 and spent six years as a school board member before that.
The five-member township council is entirely Republican.
Raritan: There are more Democrats registered in Raritan than Republicans, but the GOP has maintained complete control of local government. Incumbents Paul Giraldi and Nicholas Carra are opposed by Democrats Melissa Harris and Dianne Bautista.
Somerville: Dennis Sullivan, the Democratic mayor, is unopposed for re-election.
Three Democratic incumbents — Jane Kobuta and Roger Vroom for full terms and Granville Brady for an unexpired term — are running for seats on the all-Democratic borough council. They race Republicans Paul Cataldi, Hank Werner and Mario Haddad.