Ride My See-Saw: A Friendly Competition in Once Red LD16 with Bateman on Deck

Zwicker and Freiman

BRIDGEWATER – While Cory Booker relies on the message of the Beatles’ “All you need is Love,” LD16’s Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman will always have “Ride My See-Saw” by the Moody Blues. Whatever quirky, anti-intellectual, bumbling professorial narrative the GOP throws at Zwicker in the general, Freiman can counterbalance with Prudential boardroom sobriety. And if an anti-corporate encroachment threatens in a Democratic Primary,  Zwicker can plug the gap with an invocation of progressive, college loan-forgiving good guyism.  That’s a much simplified approximation of their district Taoism, but it all ads up to the perfect Alan Watts ticket, or so you would think to watch their buzz-generating (or buzz-inducing) see-saw ad.

This was, not too long ago, a stout Republican district, two-thirds Somerset and a third Hunterdon, with Somerset-state Senator Kip Bateman’s (R-16) environmentalism complemented by just enough Republican red meat in the hinterlands to make something approximating the kind of 2019 Mercer-Middlesex-aided balance struck by Zwicker and Freiman. 2011 changed almost everything for the LD16 GOP, when Democrats deviously separated Bateman from Bridgewater and subbed in South Brunswick and Princeton, thereby giving Dems an obvious opening; widened, as time proved, by the double whammy of Chris Christie and, especially, Donald Trump.

The result over nearly a decade now is Bateman’s solitary – and highly tenuous – GOP occupancy of the 16th (he won reelection by 800-900 votes in 2017) amid the crackling fires of a fallen Republican empire, most of the worst damage at this point emanating from the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster. Having run Somerset County for decades, the GOP has fallen back to making the protection of incumbent Freeholder Pat Walsh its first priority, leaving Zwicker’s and Freiman’s Nov. 5th challengers mostly to their own devices as Republican leadership looks ahead to getting rid of Princeton or South Brunswick in 2021 redistricting and giving Bateman a chance at longer-term political survival. Somerset County Republican Committee Chairman Al Gaburo is expected to be on the redistricting commission with the expressed purpose of restoring Bridgewater to Bateman.

Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) and Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23) at the Somerset County GOP Convention.

Short of that, the venerable moderate senator – easily the most iconic political figure here in Somerset – is getting fitted for judge’s robes.

Then, again, Republicans argue, Trump could lose next year and the pendulum could swing. President

Freshman Congressman Rep. Tom Malinowski holds an informal town hall with constituents in Bernardsville, answering questions about immigration reform, impeachment, climate change and how the 2018 elections have changed the House of Representatives.
Freshman Congressman Rep. Tom Malinowski did win Bridgewater last year, underscoring the danger zone for the GOP (a long as Trump is in office) even if the big sprawling, Republican-leaning town reenters the 16th District.

Bernie Sanders could lead a socialist revolution nationally that would dovetail perfectly with the kind of heretofore unassisted messaging they’ve bombed Zwicker with going back to 2015. It. Could. All. Come. Together. Murphy – just like Corzine on the heels of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory – would be the first statewide Democratic casaulty, taken out by none other than sensible, straight-shooting People’s Republic of Princeton-invoking, LD16-galvanizing former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16). Ciattarelli, you’ll remember, dove clear of the collapse of the 16th by becoming a 2017 gubernatorial candidate; elongating the ambition in the aftermath of his loss to 2021. Far from being in jeopardy, Bateman would storm back with two allies riding his coattails.

It could happen, murmuur the most hopeful Republican barstool sources, the ensuing silence met with inevitable near total reversal.

“But it’s unlikely.”

What’s more probable, the Millicent Fenwick-schooled GOP here seethes, is Trump’s reelection and the ongoing carnage at home, with Democrats using the president’s unpopularity in New Jersey to stampede the careers of moderate, pro-environment gems like Bateman out of existence. Once a perceived gift to the sanctuary state-fearful party in Central Jersey, Murphy now looks like a reelection lay-up as long as Trump stays in power.

Bateman’s engaged, knowing Zwicker and Freiman want to run up the score to prove they’re unbeatable. The pair filmed a ping pong commercial as a followup to their see-saw sally, and the paddles had to be taken away from them and boxed out of reach, they were so competitive with each other. Forget about their opponents. The guys were a friendly microcoism of the Democratic Party statewide in the Trump era. They gained more from arm-wrestling in their own gym than going against Republicans at this point.

But former Freeholder Mark Caliguire and his running mate, Christine Madrid, also of Montgomery, aren’t acting like sacrificial lambs. A veteran who’s run in competitive elections before (he lost in 2017), Caliguire has the war paint on; the trouble is he has the challenge of trying to get around the battleground template Zwicker put in place nearly a half decade ago, which is now the preferred Trump times messaging in all battleground districts for Dems (including LD1 and LD8). It amounts to this: the Democrat, who begins with his own party supposedly galvanized by anti-Trump fervor, runs as a pragmatist to ensnare the independent vote, leaving the Republican to hang himself as a Trump defender, entangled in ideological issues and unable to cut back to the center.

“The best way to focus and make New Jersey affordable is to grow small businesses,” Zwicker told InsiderNJ, referring to the high tech biz under the umbrella of innovation leislation he wrote and got passed.

“LD16 is definitely not a Democratic district,” the assemblyman said. “It still has more unaffiliated voters. It’s a very thoughtful district, and I have always been not so attuned to a label but conscious of the wide spectrum of views in the 16th. We’re passing enormous legislation and bringing more money into the schools, and NJ Transit, and passing paid sick leave legislation. The reality is there are hundreds of high tech business jobs throughout my district,” and Zwicker crafted financial incentives and angel investment tax credits to protect and expand those business jobs, he noted.

From left: state Senator Kip Bateman, former Somerset Freeholder Mark Caliguire (Republican candidate for Assembly), and former Somerset Clerk Brett Radi.
From left: state Senator Kip Bateman, former Somerset Freeholder Mark Caliguire (Republican candidate for Assembly), and former Somerset Clerk Brett Radi.

Bateman sees it differently, of course.

“Obviously we have two very qualified candidates,” the Republican senator told InsiderNJ, referring to Caliguire and Madrid. “Their key to winning is voter turnout. They need good turnout in the Republican towns – Hillsborough and Branchburg. They can win. There are 15K more registered Democrats than independents in the district, but independents are still a large factor, of course.” Millionaire’s tax-seeking Gov. Phil Murphy is no prize here, either, according to polling in both camps.

Caliguire makes the case for why he and Madrid – not Zwicker-Freiman – is the pragmatic choice, noting that since 2004, one-party Democratic Party rule in the State Legislature has been “a disaster for taxpayers.” He and his running mate argue on their website:

  • We are one of the highest-taxed and worst-run states in America.
  • We are currently on the hook for $239 billion in debt.
  • We “lead” the nation in most people moving out of state.
  • While the rest of the country’s economy is booming, our workforce remains below pre-2008 Great Recession levels.

Pointing out that Zwicker and Freiman voted to spend $3.8 million on tuition aid for “illegal immigrants,” they throw just enough sanctuary state rhetoric at the electorate in hopes of hail mary love from the right. “Mark is a little bit different than I am on some of these issues,” Bateman acknowledged. “But he was a good mayor and good freeholder.”

He agrees with Caliguire and Madrid that Zwicker, at the very least isn’t the cold pragmatist as advertised. “This is a case where Asemblyman Zwicker comes from the far left, and former Freeholder Caliguire comes at from the right. What it comes down to is voters in this environment look to the individual, and people want more of a balance in Trenton. Look at all of the problems we have in this state with Democrats in charge.”

But it’s a tough election.

Brandishing the latest poll numbers from battlegrounds all over the sstate, Democrats giggle behind the scenes that Ld16 and LD11 are sufficiently safe at this point to enable explorations elsewhere: notably in LD8, LD25 and LD21, in that order. If LD21 – Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick’s (R-21) district -were just a head fake, they would not be spending the money they are there. In this environment, again, Somerset Republicans are intently focused on protecting Walsh, hence a cable TV ad dropped in the middle of the Democratic Presidential debate last night going after countywide Democrats Melonie Marano and Darrin Russo (sheriff).

As Zwicker and Freiman vie for districtwide ping pong champ and see-saw their way into the hearts of the district’s children (still number three on ELEC’s money raised and spent list), the GOP pounds the pavement for Walsh, Bramnick protects himself next door in terrible GOP weather, the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC) makes life more than diffficult for Assemblyman and senate-designate Tony Bucco, Bateman prays for redistricting to change again the shape of his district and lenthen the runway of hiss reign, and Republicans in the most sedate of once-Republican dominant counties, await Trump’s permanent exile to his golf course in Somerset.

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