Drilling Into a Split District: Senator Kip Bateman and the Portents of LD16

DiMaio

SOMERVILLE – Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, the elegant woman in the back seat of the sedan, rode with a young driver – son of a well-heeled legislator – who would go on to become a prosecutor, serve 12 years in the General Assembly, and become known in these parts as none other than Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman of the 16th District.

The senator’s late father, Ray Bateman, was another Somerset County political legend; a Republican moderate like Ms. Fenwick, who likewise ran statewide as the favorite and lost. Mr. Bateman ran for governor in 1977, and Ms. Fenwick ran for U.S. Senate in  1982.

Now, a year after the death of his father, Senator Kip Bateman faces his own reelection prospects in a complex district, one of the state’s true 2017 battlegrounds – but one that Bateman knows well. as of last year, the district had 156,019 registered voters, of whom 68,154 (43.7%) registered as unaffiliated, 49,002 (31.4%) registered as Democrats, and 38,394 (24.6%) registered as Republicans.

The Republican leader and his allies celebrated the fact that he got through filing deadline yesterday without a GOP Primary. That was a little bit of a worry: a challenge from the right. Like those before him who taught him politics – his father and Millicent Fenwick – the senator serves as a moderate with an extremely high rating from environmental groups.

He favors decriminalizing marijuana, supplied an aye vote on marriage equality, was the first Republican senator to attempt an override of Governor Chris Christie, tried to stop Donald J. Trump’s march late in the game by throwing a fundraiser for Ohio Governor John Kasich, and considers Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) a cross-the aisle ally.

Sweeney, sources say, would much rather dump a bundle of money into LD11 against Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) rather than even go through the motions of a gym workout in the direction  of LD16.

All of that sets Bateman up to stare down Democratic challenger Laurie Poppe of Hillsborough, a relative unknown, whose presence on the ballot has the feel of Bateman’s carefully conceived politics having the desired effect: sapping Democrats of any battle frenzy they might feel to take him on this year.

They might have run politically and financially well-connected economics Prof Zenon Christodoulou, for example. But as one Democratic Party insider de-boarding the chamber train in D.C. grunted at InsiderNJ when the name Bateman came up as a potential general election target, “too tough.”

Look at the numbers: in 2007 (granted, prior to redistricting) Bateman gonged his Democratic challenger 62-38%. In 2011, he won 55-45%. Then in 2013 (again, not a good example because an then unbeatable Governor Chris Christie occupied the top of the ticket) he swamped his opponent 60-40%.

Still, this year is different.

Other factors outside his control determine that in 2017, Bateman will have to raise real money and run a real campaign, and could find himself in a classic split district dogfight a la Linda Greenstein by the time it’s all over. With the exception of one outcome outlined below changing the game, more will fall on the senator’s shoulders than in years past.

It starts with that redistricting decision by the Dems back in 2011, when they excised Republican stronghold Bridgewater from the 16th and supplanted it with South Brunswick, a Democratic town. That move back then plays into the dimensions of this year’s district-wide contest. The death of long-serving Mayor Frank Gambetese at 81 last week means South Brunswick will be in play this year, as residents go to the polls to pick his successor.

The volatility factor means South Brunswick could produce bigger than usual numbers and play havoc with GOP victory models. There’s the Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) factor, of course, and that’s a big one. The Democrat who displaced Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-16) by 100 votes in 2015 will have resources at his disposal, a high tech, low-partisan record, and a Gordon Gecko-like minder on his team named Mark Matzen.

Whatever low energy Sweeney means to distribute into LD16 will find its opposite with lower house animation on Zwicker’s behalf. Anti-Trump protests at Raritan Valley Community College and in front of the Somerset County Courthouse earlier this year demonstrate a more energized than usual Democratic Party base in Central Jersey.

Zwicker’s presence contributes almost as much of a headache as Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli’s (R-16) absence.

As long as the popular Ciattarelli has served the ticket under Bateman, he’s provided a reliable foundation in the big sprawling town of Hillsborough. His decision to run for governor leaves a critical part of the Republican front unprotected.

Bateman’s got to put that on his own back, not unlike the way Bill Pascrell had to shoulder Passaic when Jerry Speziale disappeared in 2010.

Then there’s the gubernatorial factor.

Former Governor Tom Kean was playing golf in this area a few years ago and when the name Phil Murphy came up, the elder Kean teed off, then supposedly sedately said, “He’d be a good governor.” If the top of the ticket match-up is the Christie-impaired Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno against Murphy, Republicans fear a general election  bucking bronco ride they’d just as soon forego.

Now to the infrastructure on the plus side for Bateman.

First, there’s his name. He’s consistently been the top vote-getter in LD16. Whether Ray or Kip, Bateman is gold in this area. Second, Bateman has a war paint-wearing, grudge-match footed former Assemblywoman Donna Simon on his team, who wants to drive up big numbers in the Hunterdon portion of the district as part of her design to displace the man who beat her two years ago. Then there’s the presence on the ticket of hard-working Freeholder Mark Caliguire, who’s expected to sledge-hammer the numbers in his hometown of Montgomery.

It won’t hurt to have Somerville Mayor Brian Gallagher running for freeholder.

Originally Republicans tailored Bernards Mayor Carol Bianchi for a countywide run this year, but a local issue involving a mosque jammed her up, a political encumbrance that might not have been as relevant as the fact that Bernards is in LD21 – not LD16. Bianchi on the ticket would do nothing to bump Bateman numbers. A Gallagher promotion electrifies Somerville, so so hopes the GOP.

Then there’s that X factor for Bateman: the gubernatorial contest.

Maybe Bateman relishes the opportunity of a chest thumping solo the same way an originally astonished Pascrell ultimately welcomed Speziale’s departure in 2010.

But if Ciattarelli wriggles through the GOP Primary and gets on the general election ballot, suddenly, in one shocking instant, Zwicker goes from Han Solo to the red-shirted guy who gets beamed down to a deoxygenated planet in the old Star Trek Series and Bateman morphs into Captain Kirk. The Somerset County GOP is so confident of Ciattarelli’s ability to electrify Somerset and LD16 that a large part of the primary motivation focuses on an LD16 endgame. One can imagine Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo telling locker room troops with Ciattarelli uniforms on hours before daylight on June 6th, “Let’s go out and win one for the Kipper.”

Ultimately, Bateman, faced with the reality of a split district and a volatile season, has to run the plays with the expectation of his own record, name, energy and strategic foresight penetrating come November 7, 2017.

 

 

 

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