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Grenier pays for poking the bear

By David Wildstein

There is already speculation that Salem County Republicans will seek new leadership after a disastrous 2017 for their chairman, Fran Grenier.

Grenier won just 41% against Senate President Steve Sweeney in an $18.7 million contest that may be the most expensive state legislative race in American history. Republican Freeholder Bob Vanderslice lost by seven points, leaving the GOP a narrow 3-2 control of county government. But five days before Christmas, Freeholder Melissa DeCastro said she was switching parties – flipping control to the Democrats.

Heading into 2018, Republicans face three key races: a chance to regain control of the Freeholder Board; the re-election of four-term GOP Sheriff Chuck Miller; and the contest for Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s open House seat. DeCastro is up for re-election, as is three-term Republican Freeholder Benjamin Laury. Miller, was unopposed the last time he ran.

Grenier, 53, was elected County Chairman in a February 2013 special election. The incumbent, Michael Facemyer, resigned six months early so that his successor could play a role in candidate recruitment. Some GOP officials would not be disappointed if Grenier did the same.

The problem for the Salem GOP is that the stronger-than-ever Sweeney is ready to keep beating up on Grenier. The worst kept secret down near the Delaware border is that the Senate President helped engineer DeCastro’s party-switch. Now she has Sweeney and his potent political organization behind her if she decides to seek a second term.

When DeCastro ran in 2015, the initial tally had her ahead by just seven votes – but after a recount and two-week court fight that resulted in a tie, a Judge ordered one uncounted absentee ballot to be opened. That gave DeCastro a margin of one vote.

LoBiondo lost Salem when he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Rep. Bill Hughes in 1992, but won it by expansive margins since his winning bid 24 years ago. Salem will be new territory for State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, the likely Democratic candidate to replace LoBiondo – but he has Sweeney and the rest of the South Jersey Democratic apparatus behind him. Republicans still have no candidate – which may not bode well for the bottom of the ticket.

Salem is New Jersey’s smallest county — with a population of 66,083, it’s about the size of Union City – but the place has been the site of significant political turmoil for the last few years. Republicans won control (4-3) in 2011, and by 2015, their majority increased to 6-1. In 2016, 74% of voters backed a referendum that reduced the size of the Board of Freeholders from seven to five (and with 77%, to cut Freeholder salaries by 20%).

The 53-year-old Grenier won statewide attention last year after the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) decided to settle their grudge with Sweeney by spending millions to defeat him. Sweeney’s 59% turned out to be the biggest of his six Senate campaigns. Sweeney won Woodstown, where Grenier had served as a Councilman, by twelve points. Grenier received just 45% in Salem County – Sweeney won twelve of the sixteen municipalities, and tied Grenier in Quinton. GOP gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno carried it by a 50%-45% margin.

Salem has been politically competitive for years. Donald Trump won it with 55%, but Barack Obama carried it with 49.7% in 2012 and 50.8% in 2008. It went for Jeff Bell (51%) in 2014, but also for Bob Menendez (52%) in 2012. Chris Christie won it twice, as did Jon Corzine in 2005.

When Sweeney toppled eight-term party-switcher Raymond Zane for State Senator in 2001, he lost Salem by 474 votes – the only time in his career that he’s lost Salem County.

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