DENVILLE – Back during the Watergate era, Morris County Democrats won a county “freeholder” seat – for the only time – and a handful of state legislative seats.
But when the embers of Watergate died down, Republicans regained their posture as the county’s dominant party.
History may not literally repeat itself, but it’s an open question if something similar is afoot more than four decades later.
Fueled by Donald Trump’s unpopularity among many suburbanites, Democrats flipped four congressional seats in 2018 and held three of them last year. (The exception was CD-2 where then-Democrat Jeff Van Drew switched parties and won as a Republican).
But the 2021 election was not a good one for Democrats.
Phil Murphy won a surprisingly close race, the GOP gained seven seats in the Legislature and in Morris, Republicans won the mayor’s seat in Parsippany.
Whether the county is returning to its traditional form as the Trump presidency slips further into the background day by day is an open question. We’ll have to wait for the 2022 midterms to find out, but to Laura Ali, the county GOP chair, it’s a time for optimism.
“I feel great,” Ali said Tuesday during a chat at a local coffee shop. “I think CD-11 – although Mikie Sherrill is a popular candidate – is going to be a referendum on Joe Biden and his horrible and disastrous policies.”
Before that happens, Republicans need a candidate. There’s no shortage of possibilities.
At least six individuals have expressed interest so far and Ali expects more to come forward.
And that excludes Rosemary Becchi, who ran against Sherrill in 2020 and lost by about 30,000 votes. Becchi, who has stayed in the local political limelight through a grassroots organization called Jersey 1st, may run again.
There is time for all this to be sorted out, but not a lot of time.
Morris County now has a “county line” and Ali said she wants to hold a nominating convention in February.
“You really need to get going soon, because you need to get those county committee votes,” Ali advised all would-be candidates.
Then again, what complicates things is that no one knows what the 11th district is going to look like. It now covers most of Morris and small sections of Essex, Passaic and Sussex. The redistricting commission is now holding public hearings.
Rumors abound that CD-11 may incorporate Millburn and all of Montclair, thereby making it more Democratic.
That would hurt Republicans, but Ali is not all that troubled.
“Morris will still be a strong part of the district,” she said.
Fair point, but how’s Morris going to vote? The county backed Sherrill in 2018 and 2020. No matter how you slice the numbers, it’s going to be virtually impossible for a Republican to win in CD-11 without carrying Morris.
Ali says the turnaround of GOP fortunes began three weeks ago.
Biden carried the county by 12,000 votes last year, but this year Republican Jack Ciattarelli won it by 21,000 – a 33,000 vote swing. Many, many more people voted in 2020 than they did in 2021, so this is not a direct comparison, but you see the point.
As the GOP field jockeys for position, Ali has no favorite.
“I don’t want to go into the county convention with any preconceived favorite,” she said.
“The most important thing for me is that the person who comes out of the convention is the person who has the biggest chance to beat Mikie Sherrill. I want to make sure that happens.”
And when a candidate emerges, Ali said she will work hard to energize and expand the Republican base, adding a bit cryptically, “We have a lot of good plans up our sleeve.”