The recent history of the Somerset and Burlington County Republican parties can be summarized in two simple sentences. When Donald Trump took office as president in 2017, they each held every single county office. Today, they hold none.
It’s not exactly a new analysis to point out Trump’s deleterious effect on the Republican Party in suburbia. Suburban counties across the country swung dramatically towards Democrats during the Trump era, including many counties in New Jersey that had once been bedrocks of the state Republican Party.
Among the hardest-hit were Republicans in Somerset and Burlington. Both counties were open to voting for Democrats on a federal level long before Trump – they last voted for a Republican presidential nominee in 2004 and 1988, respectively – but the Trump era was calamitous for local Republicans, who successively lost each and every county office beginning in 2017.
Now, with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House, Republicans are hoping to change their luck. Republican candidates held Democratic incumbents to close margins in both Somerset and Burlington last year, and Republican leaders say this year will be a continuation of that momentum – and the beginning of a grand comeback.
“The momentum we had, which started last year, is even stronger,” Burlington GOP Chairman Sean Earlen said. “We’re seeing more enthusiasm for our side… We’re going to remind people that you have a party that’s running the county that is culturally and socially not aligned with their values.”
A ruby-red history
In the pre-Trump era, the Somerset and Burlington County Republican Parties were both entities to be feared, albeit to different extents.
Republican control of Somerset’s county government was utterly unassailable. From 1965 until 2018, Republicans held a majority of county freeholder (now county commissioner) seats, and Democrats didn’t win a single freeholder seat from 1989 to 2018, an astonishing dry spell of nearly thirty years.
Burlington County was always more amenable to Democratic politicians, voting Democratic for county-level offices as recently as 2012 or 2008. But few could argue that Republicans weren’t in the driver’s seat, and the party held control of the board of freeholders from 1975 until 2017.
Then, when Trump was elected to the presidency, things rapidly turned around. Democrats won two Burlington freeholder seats in 2017 before winning control in 2018; Somerset was one year behind, with Democrats winning two seats in 2018 and a majority in 2019.
Once Democrats started winning in each county, they didn’t stop. It didn’t matter what the voter turnout was; it didn’t matter if they were running against established incumbents; it didn’t even matter if their candidate dropped out of the race due to domestic violence charges. The minute Somerset and Burlington Democrats got a foot in the door, they threw it wide open.
Looking at the universally Democratic county governments in the two counties now, the idea that Republicans controlled anything just a few years ago seems quaint. But Democratic strategist Mickey Quinn warned that the current makeup masks how fragile that Democratic control is in a bad year for the party.
“It’s like a baseball game where the final score doesn’t necessarily tell the tale of how the whole game went,” Quinn said.
The state of the race
That fragility was on display in 2021, when Democrats had a bad year statewide and held county commission seats in Somerset and Burlington Counties by unexpectedly narrow margins.
Those results, combined with the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, have Republicans excited about their chances this year. Both counties will elect one county commissioner seat and the sheriff’s office, and Somerset County will also elect its county clerk.
“I think we have the wind in our sails instead of sailing straight into a headwind,” Somerset GOP Chairman Tim Howes said. “Unaffiliateds are going strongly our way, Republicans are enthused. It’s really the first time since 2015 that we’ve been in this position.”
Somerset Democrats held two commissioner seats by a combined margin of just 1.6 points in 2021. This year, Commissioner Melonie Marano, County Clerk Steve Peter, and Sheriff Darrin Russo face challenges from 2021 commissioner nominee Amber Murad, Manville Councilwoman Suzanne Maeder, and retired Hillsborough police detective John Sheridan, respectively.
For Republicans to get across the finish line this time, they’ll have to convince an even larger number of voters who have supported Democrats in the past that there should be Republicans involved in county governance. Fortunately for them, Somerset County’s voters are some of the most elastic in the state.
When Joe Biden was winning Somerset County by an impressive 21 points in 2020, he got huge margins out of Democratic strongholds like Franklin Township, but his performance was strong everywhere. 17 of the county’s 21 towns backed Biden, with Bridgewater and Hillsborough – two large, moderate townships – doing so by double digits.
The 2021 county commissioner race, however, showed that many of those towns are not firmly on the Democratic side. Hillsborough voted Republican by seven points and Bridgewater by ten, while some smaller towns shifted nearly 30 points towards Republicans compared to the 2020 presidential election.
Commissioners Shanel Robinson and Sara Sooy were able to hold on because they still won Franklin by a huge margin, powering their countrywide win. But if Republicans this year can win back just a few more voters in towns like Hillsborough and Bridgewater, towns which already lean their way in local races, then the entire county could return to their column.
The path to a Republican majority is a bit trickier in Burlington County.
Democrats have always had a steadier base to draw on in Burlington, thanks in part to a large African American population concentrated in towns like Willingboro. Biden won the county by just under 20 points, similar to his Somerset margin, but two Democratic county commissioners won last year by seven points, a much more comfortable victory than in Somerset.
In order for Republicans Jeff Fortune and Mike Ditzel to win this year against Commissioner Allison Eckel and Democratic sheriff candidate James Kostopolis, they’ll have to flip swingy towns like Evesham to overpower the county’s Democratic strongholds, a tough task. But Earlen said he thinks Burlington County’s voters are ready to reconsider one-party Democratic rule.
“I think that what’s going on nationally and statewide, the residents of Burlington County are tired of it,” Earlen said. “The vast majority of them used to come our way, and I think that they’re ready to come back.”
Potentially aiding Republicans is a snafu from earlier this year that forced Democrats to go to court to seat Eckel at all.
After Commissioner Linda Hynes resigned in January to become a Superior Court judge, Burlington Democrats delayed replacing her so that Eckel, a 2021 Assembly candidate, wouldn’t have to take a tough budget vote. When the party finally chose Eckel to fill the vacancy, the allotted time period had long since passed, prompting a legal challenge from Republicans that they eventually lost.
Most voters won’t know about the court battle; in fact, most voters probably won’t know that much about their countywide candidates at all. But if nothing else, it shows that Burlington Democrats are perhaps not completely prepared for a tough fight.
The top of the ticket
Without a presidential, Senate, or gubernatorial election this year, the top of the ticket across New Jersey will be House races. And as luck would have it, Somerset and Burlington Counties are hosting arguably the two most competitive races in the state.
The vast majority of Burlington County is in the 3rd district, where Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) is the favorite, albeit just slightly, against Republican Bob Healey. Somerset, meanwhile, is split between the uncompetitive 12th district and the 7th district, where Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and former State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) are locked in a fierce race.
Both county chairmen said they look forward to working with their county’s congressional nominees, and New Jersey Republicans generally appreciate any chance they can get to tie Democrats to the unpopularity of Biden and Congress.
“Democrats have been struggling with federal issues,” said Quinn, the Democratic strategist. “That’s what’s going to be driving the conversation in those districts, and if that doesn’t play well for Democrats, you can see how Democrats down-ballot can struggle.”
There’s also a risk for Republicans, though, since national Democrats have tended to do better in Somerset and Burlington than local Democrats. If Kim, for example, galvanizes Burlington voters to vote Democratic in November, county-level Republicans may get swept away by the top of the ticket.
2023 and beyond
Should Burlington or Somerset flip red in 2022, it will be a major victory for Republicans. It will also be just one step in a longer process to bring the counties back into the Republican fold.
Both counties only have one commissioner seat up this year but two up in 2023, meaning that Republicans could regain control of county government if they sweep all three seats. (Neither county has a county executive, so the commissioner director is the highest leadership role.)
That’s a long game that Howes and Earlen said they’re happy to play.
“It starts this year,” Earlen said. “Talk about momentum – it’s a snowball. Last year was the first year, this is the year we’re going to capitalize on it, and I think it continues into next year.”
The math is daunting for Republicans in both counties; both still have yet to prove they can break through among voters who remain deeply suspicious of the Republican Party. And though the next two years are off years without statewide races at the top of the ticket, that won’t be true in 2024, 2025, or 2026, when Republicans would have to defend any gains they’ve made.
But Howes said he welcomes the long odds and hopes Democrats ignore the hints of a Somerset Republican renaissance.
“I would encourage [Democrats] to be very confident,” Howes said. “I hope that they’re resting on their laurels – because we won’t be.”