New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state. Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation. Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made. They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.
Question: The big news of the week in New Jersey was the race for the Democratic nomination for Mercer County Executive, where Dan Benson won 78% at the convention and four-term incumbent Brian Hughes dropped out three days later. How does an incumbent county executive wind up at 22% in a vote by his own county committee?
Dan Bryan: County Executive Hughes announced this week that he’s retiring rather than challenge Assemblyman Benson off the line, so I don’t want to kick him on his way out. I’ll focus instead on the things Assemblyman Benson did to put himself in position to be the next Mercer County Executive.
Assemblyman Benson and his team did the hard work from day one, going into granular detail with the Mercer County committee members. They personally reached out to every one of their target votes, ensured they had their support, and further ensured that committee members had a plan to vote. They walked in knowing they had 70% of the committee members’ votes committed, and ended up slightly higher. That’s how a candidate should approach an event like this.
Clearly, the committee members felt like Assemblyman Benson was the right man for the job, and I’m sure there are many good feelings for all County Executive Hughes has accomplished in his time. It’s great to see Mercer County Democrats finally united heading into November.
Alex Wilkes: Generally speaking, I think that this demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, the county convention system we use here in New Jersey is not one where the outcome is necessarily guaranteed. Don’t count that as a full-throated endorsement from me of the way we do things; a closed system naturally has its drawbacks. It is, however, a good lesson for candidates on both sides of the aisle.
I’ve been involved in many convention races where I was both on the “preferred” and “challenger” side, and regardless, they can be won with dedication, hard work, discipline, and organization. Conversely, if you approach them with an outwardly bad or dismissive attitude, you’ll probably find yourself running off the line. These competitive convention races require some good old fashioned shoe leather and an energetic approach – two qualities that are certainly ideal for any eventual nominee.
Question: The results of the Ocean County GOP convention were fascinating. George Gilmore is essentially got his Senate and Assembly candidate through in the 9th district, and his preferred county commissioner candidate got the line — but in the 10th, he was unable to take out Assemblyman Greg McGuckin. What does this mean for the 2025 gubernatorial primary in the county that has the most votes in the state?
Alex: I think it shows that Ocean County Republican voters are clearly engaged and have diverse opinions about their political leaders. Running up the score in Ocean County will be key for any successful Republican gubernatorial candidate in the general election, so I fully expect that a lively nominating convention will reflect the stakes at hand.
Dan: It says a lot about the New Jersey Republican Party that any ’25 hopeful will be crawling to George Gilmore for his support, despite the fact that he just spent time in jail for federal tax charges. I’m not surprised to see him retake power in Ocean County so quickly, because the NJ state GOP has been weak for so long.
Give Gilmore this – he is a serious operator who knows what he’s doing, and he’s back in a position of power for a reason.
Question: Candidates in six of the twelve towns with non-partisan municipal elections on May 9 have no opposition. Why is it becoming increasingly more difficult to find people to run for public office?
Dan: Being a Mayor is one of the toughest jobs in politics. People in New Jersey may not know who their Assemblymember is, who their State Senator is, or even who their Congressperson is. But for better or worse, they know their Mayor. It’s a demanding job (even when it’s not “full time”) and if it pays at all, the job pays far too little.
I respect anyone who cares enough about their community to step forward in public office in this age of hysterical political opinions and social media insanity. But good candidates, ones that truly care about the job and about their community, can still shine through.
Alex: I do agree with Dan that these are tough and often thankless jobs, which makes them difficult to take on with life’s other responsibilities. Add in social media, where “moms,” “dads,” and town Facebook pages are lightning quick to point out every mishap and complaint, it can certainly be overwhelming.
I don’t think the lack of challengers is necessarily the result of fear or apathy, though, so much as it is a commentary on the way voters view their own communities. Just from my personal experience, I do think people have a less hostile approach to their local politics than they do for higher offices. These are elected officials that you see at the supermarket or at your kids’ school. I find that absent some controversial issue, people are generally more reticent to make waves with their neighbors, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing in our acrimonious world.
Question: Walgreens has decided not to dispense an abortion drug in states where Republican attorneys general have threatened them with legal action, but so far, their two top competitors, CVS and Wal-Mart, have not done the same. In a state like New Jersey, where 62% of voters say they are pro-choice, will Walgreens see a drop in business? Will people start choosing pharmacies based on this issue?
Alex: Abortion is a state issue now, and the state legislatures duly elected by the people have a right to pass the regulations they see fit on this policy matter. Governor Murphy and the Democrats in this state should appreciate that private businesses are looking to be in compliance with the laws considering that they burden businesses here with every regulation imaginable. Remember the one where Murphy is requiring private businesses here to cover the cost of abortions through insurance?
I think that the campaigns against these stores are organized by the professional left, aided and abetted by future presidential losers mothballing on the Biden Advisory Committee. What Democrats in this state do not want to talk about is how their radical agenda of third trimester abortion-on-demand, and taxpayer-funded abortion tourism is wildly out-of-step with voters, regardless of other restrictions they may support.
As for what pharmacy I’ll go to? I’ll go to whatever one has Children’s Tylenol and formula in stock in Joe Biden’s America.
Dan: Some may, if advocates and pro-choice organizations get the word out there about it. Though an engaged news consumer knows about this decision, I’m not sure the general public does.
Let’s be clear: this is a terrible move for women’s healthcare, and they should be ashamed. Companies who stand on the right side of history will end up doing better by their shareholders than Walgreens will.