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Not too long ago, the only election that mattered for Morris County Republicans was the June primary. The general election always was a sure thing. Anthony M. Bucco, who is fighting to keep his District 25 Assembly seat, has been telling loyal Republicans times have changed – Democrats can no longer be ignored.
He’s right about that.
Democratic candidates Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger have been going door-to-door looking for votes all summer. The county Republican Committee responded last month by putting out a call for volunteers to help mount a vote-by-mail operation in a district that covers central and western Morris plus Bernardsville in Somerset County.
Recent history explains the new dynamic.
Two years ago, Bhimani, then a state Senate candidate, and two Assembly runningmates came withing 2,500 to 3,000 votes of victory.
Republicans were saved only by strong showings in the western part of the district, primarily the townships of Roxbury and Washington, which each gave the GOP ticket a more than 1,000-vote plurality.
Then there was last year when Democrats won the two congressional seats representing Morris County. That would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.
Of course, no election is the same.
Democrats kind of snuck up on Republicans two years ago and last year, there was great excitement on the left about taking control of the House.
So, the real question is whether last year’s Democratic surge in Morris was a one-year anomaly or an accurate predictor of the future? Republicans are energized and seem not willing to wait around to find
out. Bucco and his partner on the ticket, Brian Bergen, a Denville councilman seeking to replace the departing Michael P. Carroll, are doing their best to control the narrative.
In short, they have labeled Bhimani and Draeger radical leftists.
This predictable GOP strategy, however, doesn’t always work. Recall that Jay Webber tried it last year in CD-11, the county’s main congressional district, against Mikie Sherrill with disastrous results.
Specifically, the Republicans have unearthed old tweets by the Democrats to lambaste them for trashing the late John McCain and supporting so-called sanctuary cities.
They also have condemned Bhimani and Draeger for an upcoming fundraiser with Gov. Murphy. The apparent point is that associating with Murphy is associating with, you guessed it, a radical leftist who
wants to raise taxes, make community college free and legalize pot.
Their theme is that the Democrats are too left-wing for what at best is a politically moderate suburban district.
You have to wonder, though, if this strategy appeals to those in the middle. After all, polls we have seen show public support for increasing taxes on millionaires and making recreational pot legal.
Still, the Democrats have some vulnerabilities here. Earlier in the summer, they declined to say if they supported the 2019-20 state budget, which was a source of dispute between Murphy and Democratic
legislative leaders. This is one of the decisions members of the Assembly are expected to make. Candidates should have a public opinion on it.
Bhimani and Draeger so far are following a predictable path as well, recently attacking Bucco for being too cozy with the gun lobby and for opposing a clarification of the vote-by-mail law. Their spin was that
he’s against increasing voter participation.
This probably will be a close race and money will matter. The Dems have $136,000 on hand, according to recent campaign finance reports; the Republicans have not filed a joint report yet, considering that
the Bucco-Bergen team was just minted after the June primary.
Those who live in a “make believe world” may long for a competitive state legislative contest that focuses – at least somewhat – on genuine state problems.
For example, should the state force more shared services and consolidations among towns and school districts in hopes of cutting property taxes? That’s actually an ongoing issue in the district, involving Roxbury and Mount Arlington.
Remember the Highlands Act? More than a decade later, there remains no mechanism to help property owners who have lost equity due to the law.
One can support the environmental necessity of preserving land while still recognizing an obligation to property owners. A good chunk of the district is in the Highlands region.
Do the candidates have a plan to deal with that?
I know, the problem with confronting such complicated matters in a campaign is that they don’t lend themselves to one-liners and rhetorical attacks. Additionally, there are no easy solutions.
Probably the most influential public union in the state endorsed Bucco and Bhimani.
There’s nothing like bipartisanship. But will voters agree?