12 (Definitive!) InsiderNJ Races to Watch as the Fall 2017 Campaign Season Amps
Does anyone still remember 2007? That was the year Assemblywoman Jen Beck defeated state Senator
Ellen Karcher in the most-watched contest of the year. The Republican senator has held the seat ever since and never appeared in danger of losing it – until now. A decade after she nudged Karcher off the stage, Beck has her hands full with former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal. An organizational animal statewide, Gopal has spent a decade relationship and party-building for this moment. On paper, LD11 Democrats have a firm, 45,625 to 31,899 edge over the GOP, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, but the war will be for the 67,000 unaffiliated voters. Gopal –
banking on Christie and Trump self destruction and party demolition – is expected to lead in the money race. In July, Beck – trying to carve out and burnish her independent brand – along-with her running-mates Rob Accera and Mike Whelan, reported a total of $160K COH, with Beck reporting $140KCOH, Accera $3600COH and Whelan at $17,226. Gopal and his running mates, Assemblymembers Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey, reported over 500K COH, currently holding a 3 to 1 advantage on cash on hand over Beck’s team. Polling, according to a Republican source, shows a close contest heading toward labor day. If everything else holds, and LD7 registers an expected win for Assemblyman Troy Singleton, who’s running for a vacant senate seat, and the GOP wins in LD2, a Gopal snuff-out of Beck in LD11 would alter the chamber playing field to a 25-15 advantage.
No one tells InsiderNJ that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) will lose his reelection bid in the South Jersey district. But GOP challenger Fran Grenier is
running a blue war paint Braveheart-style with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) in the role of those Scottish barons who provided some (ultimately somewhat shaky) cavalry support in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The NJEA wants to muddy Sweeney – even if it means saddling up with the chairman of the Salem County GOP, a pro-gun former nuclear plant worker. The polling shows it a high single digit contest in a district that Republicans maintained prior to Sweeney, who at some point will go into battle frenzy gear and is expected to wipe out Grenier. Democrats have a 50K to 30K registration advantage over Republicans, and the advantage of the best Building Trades labor GOTV in the state.
This is truly the race for insiders, a bruising mile-square bonanza featuring a collision among Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Council President Jen Giattino, Hudson Freeholder Anthony Romano, and Councilman Mike DeFusco for the city hall throne vacated by Mayor Dawn Zimmer. No one really knows who’s going to win, which makes the race especially fun. Each of the candidates also has discernible strengths and weaknesses, and appears to best fulfill the prerequisites of the city’s long-established base camps. Each bears apparent contradictions. Bhalla is the reformer candidate whose law firm fulfills public sector contracts. Giattino courts a Bernie Sanders crowd – and she’s a Republican. Romano was supposed to have the overt backing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) by now, but the organization remains in a holding pattern as a consequence of state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) commanding a hands-off game plan. Then there’s DeFusco, who chews into everyone else’s base and risks the accusation that he’s trying too hard to be all things to all people. But he has the most money, and continues to scare his rivals.
Republican Mayor Don Guardian (pictured at the top of this story), the openly gay, bow-tie-wearing city steward who won an unlikely citywide race in 2013, earned his spurs in the eyes of many as an uncompromising, no-nonsense and fearless fighter for local control against the imposing twin barrels of Governor Chris Christie and South Jersey Democrats. Now he wants a second term, and this time he will have to get through Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam, who bested fellow Democrat Marty Small in a bloody primary. Guardian has a gutsy brand name, and possibly the benefit of Small sitting on his hands after getting bested by Gilliam. He also has a close affiliation with favored state Senate contender Chris Brown (see below). But there are dynamics out of his control, too, like the governor’s contest.
Most sources see Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown well positioned to win a contest for the vacant senate seat against former Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell, a Democrat. A Desert Storm veteran and former judge, Brown pressed the case against an unpopular state takeover, and has the critical home county unions with him. He also has the affiliation of Mayor Donald Guardian. But Bell will run as an incumbent, assuming the seat left vacant by the death of retiring state Senator Jim Whelan. Insiders must also keep an eye on this one, too, because of the governor’s race. It’s a district Senator Whelan controlled for ten years. If Phil Murphy demolishes Kim Guadagno by 20 points or more, might Bell (riding a 47K-34K D to R districtwide registration advantage) be the beneficiary against the well-grounded Brown, who has to cope with dynamics above that he can’t control?
Just last night in front of the Somerset County Courthouse, state Republican Senator Kip Bateman and Democratic Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker appeared at a unity rally, trying desperately to transmit those pacific chords envisioned by the political establishment as protective cover for these two incumbents from opposite parties. But again, as with LD11 and LD2, this split, Somerset-based
district has real battleground potential, and arguably the advantage of a grassroots Central Jersey anti-Trump movement coupled with a Murphy blowout of Guadagno, may propel unlikely senate candidate Lauren Poppe into closer contention with Bateman. As for wicker, he will try to hold his seat against a come-backing former Assemblywoman Donna Simon and Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire, whose GOP campaign has the sturdy undergirding of a Franklin-based candidacy by incumbent Freeholder Brian P. Levine and popular hometown hero Mayor Brian Gallagher of Somerville. The Dems appear better organized than in years past, with a party headquarters off the side street and in spacious Main Street digs between Starbuck’s and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.
Sure, there’s a mayor’s race, but incumbent Steven Fulop has a strong edge over challenger Bill Matsikoudis, in money, organization and name ID. This is all about the council contests, where the mayor’s adversaries hope to bloody him by taking the council (he has 6-3 control as it stands) away from him, or at least weakening his hold on a majority. Sources say the at-large races aren’t as interesting as the ward tilts. The at-large incumbents are favored, despite a late filed challenged by former Assemblyman Sean Connors, a city detective. Ward A is crowded. You have Denise Ridley running on Fulop’s team, Rick Johnson on Matsikoudis’s slate, Independent Pam Johnson, Charlie Mainor and former JCDO Chair Joe Conte. A source close to the race speculates that Mainor’s play was to be like Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona and help Conte reach the runoff. A Fulop backer insists Ridley will have the strongest organizational power and structure behind her. Ward B has incumbent Chris Gadsden who is running with Matsikoudis. Fulop has community activist Mira Prinz-Arey. Advantage Prinz-Arey. Ward C, you have Rekha, Rich Boggiano and John Hanussak with Fulop. This is a danger zone for Fulop
fans, say sources. The Indian community on Newark Ave is staunchly against Rekha. They view her as a non-starter and at odds with the small business owners in Little India. Hanussak has been around a while and was involved in 2013 but many, including some on the inside of Fulop’s camp, bemoan the pick and felt the Mayor should have picked either a Latino or Indian in that Ward. Boggiano has a huge voting block in the Hilltop society and a source on the ground says he wins without a problem. Ward D you have Michael Yun, an independent candidate and incumbent as well as Mo Kinberg, on Fulop’s slate. Carmen Vega is running with Bill. Ward D is a wildcard due to the Mayor’s popularity. He also lives in the ward. So the question is can Fulop’s coattails carry Mo across the goal line? Most sources say Yun – who flirted with a mayoral run – easily wins, possibly by as much as a 2-1 margin, and remains a thorn in the mayor’s side. In Ward E, the mayor’s old ward and the vacated turf of Councilwoman Candace Osborne, who’s not running again, it’s truly the Wild Wild West. Jacob Hudnut is on Team Matsikoudis. You have James Solomon, Rebecca Symes (both New Leaders Council [NLC] alumni) and Nick Grillo, a long time resident with old school Italian ties in the ward. Symes is banking on her youth and her very liberal views to propel her forward but she lacks a base and so far has not demonstrated traction. Maybe with the transient and newer voters downtown? But she has to go crazy to buck the view that she’s a carpetbagger who instantly flashed her ambition when she arrived on the scene two years ago or so. It’s honestly anyone’s game there at this point, a source told InsiderNJ. Fulop will stay out until the run off. In Ward F, you have Jermaine Robinson, an incumbent running with Fulop. Yolanda Dortch-Amiker on Matsikoudis’ ticket.
Westfield Mayoral Race
This is a belly-of-the-beast storyline, where an entrenched Republican Party cigar bar club coalesced around Mayor Andy Skibitsky must sweat the candidacy of former HBO executive Shelley Brindle, a Democrat looking to ride an Anti-Trump wave and hoping to catch the GOP flat-footed as Christie limps out of office.
Pushed around locally during the Christie years, Democrats look to retake control here with the bow-out of some longtime GOP stalwarts. The D’s need three seats to take the steering wheel of the council, and three seats are up this year.
We haven’t seen a poll for a few months,when Quinnipac University made it a 27% beat down for Democrat Murphy over Republican Guadagno. Christie looks submerged with a 16% approval rating, and President Donald J. Trump continues to blunder, adding to Dems’ hopes of making a bigger dent in their statewide win and favorably impacting most of the contests enumerated above. Murphy has cash momentum, too, with a 3-1 advantage over his rival in a state where D’s outnumber R’s by 800,000. But Guadagno had reason to celebrate this week. Her GOP colleagues – even those who initially regarded her candidacy skeptically – see hope for the Republican nominee in her salvos against Murphy’s tax-hiking strategy. Just today, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) stood at the LG’s side to amplify that attack line against Murphy, mostly in an effort to stop any potential for major down-ballot GOP bleeding.
My vote’s for Don guardian as Mayor ad Chris Brown as Senator