The upset defeat of two Republican Freeholders in Burlington County leaves the last authentic Republican political machine in New Jersey defending control of county government in the 2018 general election. Republicans now have a narrow 3-2 majority on the Board of Freeholders, with two GOP incumbents up for re-election in November.
Here’s where I state the obvious: Democrats only need to beat one of the two Republicans. But a two-seat win means Republicans couldn’t take back control in low-turnout 2019, and would be fighting in a tougher climate in 2020, when the presidential election drives up turnout.
There will be a short-term period while neither party has control this year. Ryan Peters, a former Navy SEAL and rising GOP star, will leave the Freeholder board to take his seat in the State Assembly on January 9. The Burlington County Republican Committee will hold a special election convention to fill the remaining year of Peters’ term sometime in the next month.
Freeholder Kate Gibbs, who works for the Operating Engineers Local 825 union, is expected to seek a second term, along with the new incumbent picked to replace Peters.
The emergence of competitive elections in Burlington has been a long-time coming, and most pundits believe that the exceptional political skills of Republican County Chairman Bill Layton and his predecessor, Glenn Paulsen, have enabled he GOP to last this long. Burlington has become increasingly more Democratic over the last decade. Their edge in voter registration has expanded to 46,572; in 2007, Burlington had 746 more Republicans than Democrats.
Republicans have controlled Burlington County for most of the last seven decades. Democrats won control in 1958 and held on to it until 1963. Republicans lost control again in 1964, and won it back in 1966. Democrats took back the Board of Freeholders in 1973, and the GOP took it back for good in 1975.
The GOP has survived some close calls, like in 1989, when South Jersey favorite son Jim Florio carried Burlington by 29,000 votes. The County Chairman then was the legendary Garfield DeMarco, who made sure his Republican Freeholders held on, albeit narrowly. Both parties had their Diane Allen types: Francis “Luke” Brennan, a Democrat who was elected Sheriff in 1958 and went on to serve nine terms; Republican County Clerk Edward Kelly, who beat an incumbent in 1969, survived the Watergate landslide and held the job for 25 years; and Elton Conda, a Republican who was elected Surrogate in 1966 and stayed until his death forty years later. (Conda actually lived in a nursing home for the last few years of his life, working only in the mornings and taking an occasional nap on his office sofa.)
In 2017, Phil Murphy carried Burlington by a 56%-41% margin. Admittedly, that wasn’t Layton’s fault: he thought Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli would make a stronger candidate and didn’t back Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
The retirement of six-term State Sen. Diane Allen allowed Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton to easily move up to the Senate. That too was not Layton’s fault. Allen’s personal popularity was the only reason Republicans held the seat all this time; she was the only Republican to carry the seventh legislative district since 1995.
The big surprise of the night came in the race for Freeholder. Republican Freeholders Bruce Garganio and Linda Hughes were unseated by Democrats Tom Pullion and Balvir Singh. Pullion, a former Mayor of Edgewater Park, won by more than 5,000 votes; Singh, a teacher who serves on the Burlington Township Board of Education, beat Garganio by 2,246 votes. Singh accused the GOP of race baiting,
Democrats also came close to a stunning upset in the eighth legislative district, where former Freeholder Joanne Schwartz came within 350 votes of beating Peters for a State Assembly seat. GOP Assemblyman Joe Howarth finished just 645 votes ahead of former Waterford Mayor Maryann Merlino. GOP State Sen. Dawn Addiego was re-elected with only 52%.
Burlington elections became a lot more competitive in 2008, when Barack Obama carried the county by 51,593 votes. Democratic State Sen. John Adler won an open House seat against a weak GOP challenger. Democrats Chris Brown and Maryanne Reinhart upset two Republican Freeholder incumbents, and Democrat Timothy Tyler was elected County Clerk.
Layton won huge praise in 2010 when he convinced Freeholder Brown and another rising Democratic star, Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, to switch parties. Former Philadelphia Eagles star Jon Runyan, a candidate Layton recruited personally, defeated Adler and returned the Burlington-Ocean seat to Republican hands. The next year, he flipped Tyler and George Kotch, who had been elected Surrogate in 2006, and took nack Reinhart’s freeholder seat.
Obama (58%) and Senator Bob Menendez (59%) had some coattails in 2012, giving Democrats two more Freeholders: Aimee Belgard and Schwartz ousted Garganio and Mary Ann O’Brien. Both lost re-election three years later. Garganio returned to the Freeholder board in 2014 (and lost re-election again) and O’Brien became the Burlington County Surrogate.
While Hillary Clinton was winning Burlington by fourteen points in 2016, local Republicans held on narrowly. O’Brien won her Surrogate race with 51.9%; Robert Tiver took a Freeholder seat with 51.%.