Morris County Republicans may have grown weary of fighting among themselves.
The county’s GOP committee plans a meeting in January to vote on adopting a “county line,” which in simple terms, means that the party would begin endorsing candidates in primaries, thereby rendering them all but meaningless.
This is “insiders’ stuff” to be sure, but there are real world ramifications here.
Morris Republicans traditionally have had bruising primaries for county and state offices, some of which have prompted litigation. This pugilistic spirit was most recently on display in 2019 when victorious freeholder candidate Tom Mastrangelo filed a legal action against his opponents. Usually, it’s the guy who loses who goes to court, not the guy who wins.
That type of acrimony is the problem.
“I believe that the time has come for us to respectfully modify the way in which we operate our endorsement practice,” is how Laura Ali, the county’s GOP chair, puts it in a message to party members.
Instead of a primary “free for all” when ballot positions are a matter of chance and candidates must raise their own money, the proposal calls for the county committee to decide by majority vote who gets the preferred ballot position and the Morris GOP slogan. This is the “county line.”
The reality is that whoever gets the line is likely to win the primary. After all, that individual would run in a Republican primary with the imprimatur of the Morris County Republican party.
Now, it must be noted that just about every other county organization in the state on both sides of the aisle has a county line. So the Morris GOP would be joining the crowd, not breaking new ground.
Yet, up until now, the county itself and Morris Republicans in particular have prided themselves on being different, if not better, than the rest of the state. Morris was – and is – the place with an affluent, well-educated population in a region offering a nice mixture of big-city conveniences and acres of woodlands.
All well and good, but this drive to political conformity is being driven, not surprisingly perhaps, by Democrats.
As Ali noted in her message, rather than raise campaign cash and beat each other up in primaries, “the Democrats should be our only opponents.”
Of course, the Dems always have been the GOP’s opponent, but times have changed. For a variety of reasons, the county is much more competitive than it was even 10 years ago.
You need proof?
The two House members representing the county are Democrats and Joe Biden carried the county last month. So did Cory Booker. A county line would have nothing to do with those races, but you can see the point about Morris being more competitive.
Now we come to the crux of the matter.
Ali says county committee members generally have the “insight, knowledge and experience” needed to vet candidates and select the ones best equipped to carry the GOP banner against the Democrats in this new environment.
A cynic may counter that a group of political insiders might be prone to endorse their friends, not someone who’s going to rock the proverbial boat.
History may be unimportant to some, but the political record is clear – many well-known Morris Republicans got their start by running in and winning “open” primaries – that is without a county line.
That’s what Ed Rochford did when he challenged Sheriff John M. Fox back in 1992. Fox was entrenched; Rochford never would have gotten the line. But he was able to win and he held the job for more than 20 years.
Remember Chris Christie?
There is no way a then 32-year-old freeholder candidate recently relocated from Essex County would have been endorsed by the county committee. But he won the 1994 primary and you know the rest of the story.
More recently – meaning in this century – Hank Lyon, who was in his early 20’s, beat an incumbent freeholder, who clearly would have had the county line if one existed.
Then, there was Jim Murray. A long time employee of the county engineering department, he won a freeholder primary a decade or so ago, helped by a favorable ballot position, not to mention a great name for Jersey politics.
New blood, young candidates and those not part of the “in crowd’ can keep any political organization from becoming stale.
And that’s something committee members may want to keep in mind before opting to play politics like the rest of Jersey does.