Somerset County generally breaks for the Democratic presidential candidate, but the same isn’t true for the county-level races there.
Democrats haven’t won a freeholder seat in Somerset in almost four decades, and while Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter beat the Republican incumbent last year, calling his win a narrow one would be something of a gross understatement. He won by 128 votes in a race where almost 87,000 ballots were cast.
That victory, and the prospect of an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans in a midterm election year widely considered to be a referendum on President Donald Trump doesn’t have the county’s Republican incumbents worried.
“We certainly have more registered Democrats now in Somerset County than Republicans, and Hillary won it, Obama won our county and all that, but people have crossed the line for us because Somerset County is always one of the top 10 best counties in the United States,” said Freeholder Pat Walsh.
Walsh won her own 2016 reelection race by 6,500 votes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump there by a little more than 20,000 votes.
But, Republicans face a tougher field in 2018 than they did in 2016, when Democratic enthusiasm was low and many voters that helped get President Barack Obama elected stayed home.
While it’s impossible to predict turnout with any degree of accuracy in advance of an election, Democrats feel good about their chances, pointing to things like rally attendance as a sign of enthusiasm.
Though, Republicans have their own claims in that regard.
“Knocking on doors in the last month — I’d run last year for the state assembly; it was a very different environment — I just didn’t get the sense of enthusiasm from Republicans that I do this year,” said Freeholder Mark Caliguire, whose running for reelection. “I knocked on a lot of doors, and there aren’t many Republican doors where they haven’t said I’ve already voted or yes, I am definitely voting. I think that’s good for us.”
Democrats are turning out their party’s rock stars to animate voters in counties across the state, including in Somerset, where Gov. Phil Murphy stumped for Tom Malinowski and the county’s Democratic freeholder candidates, Sara Sooy and Shanel Robinson, on Saturday.
Further, Democrats are pushing their base to vote straight down the line, and should voters listen, that could be a problem for Caliguire and Freeholder Director Patrick Scaglione.
“They put out like 10 pieces of negative mail to their base. Tells me they’re scared,” said Somerset Democratic Chairwoman Peg Schaffer. “I just think our candidates are better. I think people are ready for change. We’ve been pitching the top-to-bottom. I think that they’ve benefitted to a large extent that people don’t always understand that you have to vote all the way down the line, that you can’t just pick the top button and vote.”
Walsh doesn’t think the race will be close. Caliguire is less optimistic.