SOMERVILLE – In a downtown Main Street office formerly occupied by former U.S. Rep. Tom
Malinowski (D-7), Somerset County GOP Chairman Tim Howes handled the institutional reference points of his organization with a kind of loving care. Among them appeared a certificate of incorporation for this storied outfit, including, at the top, the name of the late Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, the legendary pol known for her powers of diplomacy and public service sophistication.
Now, amid damage done to the GOP in this Central Jersey county in the Trump era – including a takeover by the Democrats of the freeholder board and Malinowski’s ejection of former U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) the question is whether Republicans can reverse recent fortunes, nothwithstanding the considerable influence on the political landscape of the Fenwick brand-bending, Bedminster Golf Course inhabiting President Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s also on the ballot on Nov. 3rd; at the top of the ticket, in point of cold fact.
“One of the joys of moving the office from down the hall is finding some of the history,” said Howes, an attorney elected this past June to chair the Somerset GOP.
The same certificate of incorporation features the name of Luke Gray, who served as chair of the party here for 38 years.
There have only been five Somerset GOP chairs since the Eisenhower Administration (Gray,
Assemblyman Jack Penn, Dale Florio, Al Gaburo, and now Howes) – an organization, the sitting chairman notes – that helped install Eisenhower as president and, in 1993, helped elect then Freeholder Board Chair Christine Todd Whitman governor (Whitman now backs Democrat Joe Biden for president). The other names – Frelinguysen and Bateman – also play significantly – and almost uniformly substantively if sedately – into the story here of a party long dominant until a dreadful collision of changing demographics and Trump. The raw numbers of registered are fairly eye-popping and would probably cause even the unflappable Eisenhower to do a double take if he were still around: 81,241 D’s and 58,746 R’s.
In Howes’ hands, the certificate includes the name of the late Ray Bateman, who basically created Raritan Valley Community College, and co-wrote Green Acres, whose son soldiers on as the state senator in LD16 as a progressive, environmentally sensitive (a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt stands on Howes’ wall) Republican.
Howes’ easy access to organizational history and symbolism are not the consequence of a rehearsal to make the oranization look better; merely the crossroads of the chairman’s own interest and reality. Another storied regional name in these parts – Tom Kean (in this case, junior) occupies the ticket under Trump in CD7 as a GOP foil to Malinowski, apparently in hopes of reanimating a slumbering Republican rank and file that can recall the governorship of Tom Kean, Sr. (1982-1990).
Howes doesn’t necessarily see doom setting in for his party in less than 45 days. Although Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) defeated Trump in 2016 by 74,242-55,638 in Somerset, Freeholder Pat Walsh won by over 4,000 votes.
Of course, Walsh would lose (barely) three years later.
Somerset brands are suffficiently strong to withstand the top of the ticket. Moreover, the top of the ticket will make a stand here, he asserts.
“This year I see a lot of enthusiasm for President Trump, if you look at Lamington and Route 206 by Bedminster Library – [Trump supporters] took ownership of that corner,” said the chairman. “It’s nice to see something grow that I didn’t have to plan.”
Still, “If he loses Somerset County we can still win,” Howes said. “President Trump was not my first choice. I was a Rubio guy and a Christie guy, but when it was clear he was going to be the nominee, [he backed him].
The chairman refers to Trump’s “style” as off-putting. But claims the president’s corporate tax cut offset his rejection of the SALT deduction and failure to drive the Gateway Tunnel project. “The corporate tax cut can’t be underestimated; I think it did help Somerset County [residents with their 401-ks, and even labor union investments in their pensions systems],” he said.
And yet the numbers stand out starkly.
“People see what the alternative is,” argued Howes. “I think people are seeing it in [Democratic] Governor Murphy,” said the chairman, decrying Murphy’s march forward with his baby bonds’ program (denied, incidentally, by Senate President Steve Sweeney as part of a deal for the millionaire’s tax) in the midst of a pandemic.
As for the 3-2 manned Democratic Freeholder Board, “They’re still figuring out what to do here,” he said. They made what Howes said was a costly mistake (worth $1 million) in not ensuring the continued shared service agreement for use of the county jail between Somerset and Hunderton counties. He suspects the county will start leaning heavily in the direction of too much government and takes hope in the fact that 60% of Somerset residents (or 14 of 21 towns) are governed by Republican mayors.
In this office moved from the front of the same building to the back, in rooms that recently housed the relocated Malinowski, the Kean Campaign and the Jack Ciattarelli Campaign for Governor have their own individual rooms. “It’s no secret that the path to a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives goes right through Somerset County,” said Howes. “The Kean brand is that of a strong and dignified leader in the state senate and before that in the assembly, which connects with people. The Kean Campaign is doing a tremendous and robust job.
“There’s a pretty bright line difference between the two,” Howes said, referring to Malinowski and Kean.
“I’ve seen the ads but I haven’t seen much else,” the chairman added of the Democratic incumbent, who snatched the seat from Lance in 2018. “I don’t how much time he spends here.”
He gives his party more than a fighting chance, noting the demographic shift occurred long before Trump, going back to when Howes moved in here to settle down with his Raritan-born wife – now a judge – in the early 1990’s. But it will be a battle, in this year and the years to come, as the numbers, in Howes’ words, “don’t lie.” If the chairman’s paradox is to champion an organization whose roots are the stylistic and substantive opposite of the incumbent president, whose forebearers and political pioneers put the capital “G” in gentility and whose memory defies the narcissistic portents of sitting presidential power – “Somerset County is one of the most desirable places to live in the nation,” said the proud Republican, himself an obvious heir here – “We’ve had to get more modern and more creative.”
Will the pillars of yesteryear be enough to turn back the tide of fear?
- Al Gaburo
- Chris Christie
- Christine Todd Whitman
- Dale Florio
- Donald Trump
- Gateway Tunnel
- Hillary Clinton
- Jack Ciattarelli
- Jack Penn
- Joe Biden
- Kip Bateman
- Leonard Lance
- Luke Gray
- Marco Rubio
- Millicent Fenwick
- Pat Walsh
- Phil Murphy
- Ray Bateman
- Rodney Frelinghuysen
- Somerset County
- Somerset County Democrats
- Somerset County GOP
- Somerset County Republican Committee
- Steve Sweeney
- Teddy Roosevelt
- Tim Howes
- Tom Kean Jr.
- Tom Kean sr.
- Tom Malinowski
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