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State Sen. Kip Bateman, right, with his late father, former Senate President Raymond H. Bateman.

Somerset GOP counting on Ciattarelli coattails

Democrats have gone from oblivion to total dominance in three years

By David Wildstein, November 01 2021 3:25 pm

One of the places to watch on Tuesday is Somerset County, where favorite son Jack Ciattarelli is the Republican candidate for governor.

There was a time when Somerset would have provided an automatic plurality for their native sons and daughters – and, frankly, for any Republican on the ballot.

Christine Todd Whitman won Somerset, where she began her political career as a freeholder, by 16 points when she challenged U.S. Senator Bill Bradley in 1990, by 21 points when she unseated Gov. Jim Florio in 1993, and by 25 points in her 1997 re-election campaign.    Ray Bateman won his home county by 15 points in his 1977 gubernatorial run, and Millicent Fenwick captured a 36-point win when she ran for U.S. Senate against Frank Lautenberg in 1982.

But this isn’t Christie Whitman’s Somerset County anymore.

George W. Bush was the last GOP presidential candidate to carry the county.   In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump in Somerset by 20,184 votes, 54%-41%.

Gov. Phil Murphy won Somerset by 2,107 votes in 2017, 50%-48%, and Democrat Steven Peter won an upset victory for county clerk.   Last year, Joe Biden won it by 39,166 votes, 59%-39%.

Republicans went into the 2018 election with a 5-0 majority on what is now called the Somerset County Board of Commissioners; indeed, Democrats had not won a seat since 1979.

But Republicans ousted two incumbents in 2018, a third in 2019, and the last two in 2020; now Democrats have a 5-0 majority, and have flipped the Sheriff and Surrogate offices too.

The two Democrats who won in three years ago are now up for re-election: Shanel Robinson and Sara Sooy.  They face Republicans Michael Kirsh, a Bridgewater councilman, and Watchung school board member Amber Murad.  If Murad wins, she’ll become the first Republican Muslim to hold countywide office in the nation.

The GOP is banking on Ciattarelli’s ability to win his home county against Murphy.  There is little chance for Republicans to make a dent in the all-Democratic county government if he doesn’t.

Also at stake this year is the 16th district Senate seat now held by Kip Bateman, a member of a fabled Somerset GOP family who is retiring after 28 years in the legislature.   Three-term Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) is looking to flip the seat against Michael Pappas, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 to 1999 and is mounting a political comeback.

Democrats haven’t won the Somerset County Senate seat since 1902.

Ciattarelli was 27-years-old when he won his 1989 council race on his second try. He was the top vote-getter in that race, running about 150 votes ahead of Democrat John Lamaestra, the council president, and about 250 votes in front of Democrat Mark Pellechio, a former councilman.  Ciattarelli had lost in 1988 by about 100 votes to a Democrat named Van Van Houten.

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