Former Green Brook Mayor Melonie Marano defeated GOP incumbent Patricia Walsh in a close race for freeholder, giving Democrats control of the Somerset County Board of Freeholders for the first time since 1965.
Walsh has not conceded.
Going into Tuesday, Marano held a narrow lead of 341 votes.
The Democrat won the late VBMs 549-311. She won machine-counted provisional ballots 896-611, giving her an insurmountable lead and earning Somerset Democrats their fifth countywide win since 2017.
Those figures do not include hand-counted provisional ballots, but there are too few of those to swing the race in Walsh’s favor.
The race was a rematch of 2007, when Walsh defeated Marano by a narrow 1,867-vote margin, 51.5%-49.5%.
Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on the freeholder board when Marano takes office in January. Democrat Darrin Russo will also become the new sheriff.
They’ll keep their majority on the freeholder board for at least two years, and they’ll have a chance to further erode the GOP’s presence in the county next year, when Republican freeholders Brian Gallagher and Brian Levine come up for re-election.
They’ll also get a shot at Somerset County Surrogate Frank Bruno’s post next year. Bruno is the only Republican constitutional officer remaining in Somerset.
Once a Republican stronghold, Somerset has become a swing county in recent years.
The county has 15,798 more Democrats than Republicans. A decade ago, Republicans had an edge of 879.
Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning by 20,184 votes in 2016. Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez won Somerset in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
In 2017, Somerville Councilman Steven Peter unseated veteran Republican County Clerk Brett Radi by 407 votes; the Democratic Freeholder candidates lost by 1,489 votes.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) became the first congressman from Somerset County since Michael Pappas lost re-election in 1998. He ousted five-term Rep. Leonard Lance in the November 2018 mid-term, carrying the Somerset portion of his district by 8,758 votes (53%-45%).
In total, Somerset County voters cast 60% of their ballots in 2018 for Democratic congressional candidates. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) won her part of Somerset with 70% of the vote.
Two Democratic Assemblymen live in Somerset: Joe Danielson (D-Franklin) and Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough). A third, Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), lives in Middlesex County, but his district is mostly in Somerset County.
Democrats are beginning to build a bench in Somerset, where they’ve made significant gains on the local level.
In the days of legendary Somerset County Republican Chairman Luke Gray, who ran a formidable political machine out of his floral shop for thirty years before his death in 1984, the focus was always about maintaining Republican control of county government.
In 1965, Gov. Dick Hughes carried Somerset and a Democratic challenger came within 400 votes of beating a Republican State Senator. But Republican Jack Ewing beat Democratic Freeholder Grace Gurasic by more than 4,000 votes to end the Democratic majority on the Freeholder board after just one year.
In 1973, a 26-year-old North Plainfield Councilman, Frank Nero, won a freeholder seat in the Watergate-related Democratic landslide that year. Nero didn’t seek re-election in 1976 – he lost a race for Congress against Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville) — but Democrat Michael Ceponis kept the seat in Democratic hands. Ceponis won again in 1979 but lost in 1982 when he was beaten by Christine Todd Whitman.
Another Democrat, Rebecca Perkins, ran a strong race for Freeholder in 1999. But in 2001, a good year for Democrats statewide, Republican Freeholder Denise Coyle was re-elected by almost 14,000 votes.
Click play for audio version of this story