The new battleground county in New Jersey may be Somerset, where Democrats are making extraordinary gains in a county that used to be among the most solid Republican areas of New Jersey.
After unseating the Republican County Clerk last November and winning two Assembly seats in the once reliably Republican 16th district, Democrats are positioned to mount a competitive campaign in 2018 against two Republican Freeholders.
There are now 13,131 more Democrats registered in Somerset than Republicans. Fifteen years ago, Republicans had an edge of 15,707. Somerset has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton receiving a massive 20,184-vote plurality. Murphy and Bob Menendez have won Somerset in recent years. Democrats haven’t had control since Lyndon Johnson’s coattails gave it to them in 1964.
While Democrats are clearly on an upward trajectory, Republicans will be hard to beat. The 2018 GOP campaign will be led by County Chairman Al Gaburo, a powerful Trenton insider and former Raritan Council President who started out working for legendary political consultant Doug Bailey.
Leading the Democrats is Peg Schaeffer, a politically connected lawyer who has led the party since Elia Pelios stepped down in 2008. Under Schaeffer’s leadership, Democrats have made substantial gains at the local level. Last year, Democrats won two seats on the Bernardsville Council for the first time since Robert Janchus in 1964. They also won a seat on the Peapack-Gladstone Borough Council – the first win there since Edward Van Wyck was elected mayor in 1964.
The GOP has a 5-0 majority on the Somerset County Board of Freeholders, where Democrats have not won since 1979. The path to a takeover of county government is possible, but certainly not easy. Democrats will need to take out incumbents Mark Caliguire and Patrick Scaglione in 2018, and then oust Freeholder Patricia Walsh in 2019.
Caliguire lost a bid for State Assembly in 2017, although he won the Somerset portion of his legislative district. Now he’s expected to seek another term as a freeholder.
A third of Rep. Leonard Lance’s seventh district is in Somerset County. Lance has the more Republican towns in the county – the rest are represented by Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman – and Murphy lost Lance’s part of Somerset by 4,462 votes. To beat Lance, a Democrat will need to reduce Lance’s margins in Bridgewater, Hillsborough and Bernards, and increase their own in Somerville, North Plainfield and Montgomery.
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.
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. In 2016, longtime GOP Sheriff Frank Provenzano won with just 50.4% of the vote.
Democrats are beginning to build a bench in Somerset, where they’ve made some gains on the local level.
One potential Freeholder candidate could be Laurie Poppe, who won 48% of the vote against State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg), one of the best-known Republicans in the county. Poppe lost the Somerset portion of her district by 3,75-0 votes, but she held her Bateman to a 1,160-vote plurality in her hometown, Hillsborough.
Somerset Democrats have teased in the past. In the days of 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Cory Booker as winning Somerset County in 2014. Republican Jeff Bell won by 711 votes.