Morris County Republicans for years had “open primaries” – meaning candidates ran without the imprimatur of the county organization.
Morris was an outlier in this regard statewide and things changed two years ago when the Morris committee – finally – decided to endorse candidates in primaries or in political-speak – create a “county line.”
Now with the 2023 primary less than a week away, the line and the endorsed candidates on it are facing seemingly strong challengers for county and state office, presenting local political insiders with a pair of related questions – which candidates will win and will the line hold?
For the record in contested races, Morris Republicans have endorsed incumbent state Sen. Joe Pennacchio and Assembly incumbents Jay Webber and Brian Bergen in LD-26. (Redistricting has relocated Bergen from LD-25).
They are being challenged by Senate candidate Tom Mastrangelo and Assembly candidates BettyLou DeCroce, a former lawmaker, and Robert Peluso.
In LD-24, a mostly Sussex County district that includes parts of western Morris, the committee has endorsed Mike Inganamort and Dawn Fantasia.
Their opponents are Josh Aikens and Jason Sarnoski. No incumbents here; we’re dealing with two open seats.
There also is a battle for one nomination to the county board of commissioners between incumbent Tayfun Selen, who has the county line, and Paul DeGroot.
Morris County Chair Laura Ali, who pushed for the line, is confident.
She said she’s feeling good about all the races and is looking forward to celebrating Tuesday night, adding that she’ll have more to say on June 7, the day after the primary.
Still, there are forces out there campaigning for the “off the line” candidates and by extension, against the Morris organization.
John Sette, a former county chair himself, held a fundraiser two weeks ago through his Morris County Republican Victory PAC, in support of four candidates running off the line – the three LD-26 hopefuls and DeGroot. Sette, as you might guess, was never a fan of creating a line in the first place. About $50,000 was reportedly raised.
The guest speaker was Bill Spadea, who is both a radio show host and a possible 2025 GOP gubernatorial candidate.
A week or so later, Spadea appeared at a Sussex County fundraiser for off the line candidates Aikens and Sarnoski.
And just Tuesday night, Spadea joined Mastrangelo on a podcast to hype his Senate candidacy.
It was on that forum that Spadea called the Morris GOP committee one of the worst-run political groups in the state. Spadea has no use for the state’s Republican establishment, but in fairness, that’s a pretty silly thing to say by any objective measure.
How do you evaluate a political organization? Winning certainly counts for a lot.
It’s worth noting that Republicans in Morris control all county offices and every state legislative office except for those in LD-27, which mostly covers Essex.
That type of political control is no longer the case in, say, Bergen and Somerset counties, two locales that used to be Republican dominant, but no longer are. Morris Republicans must be doing something right.
Next week’s primary, of course, is about people and personalities – the individual candidates.
But in a larger – or perhaps different – sense, it’s about the ability of Morris Republicans to bring home the candidates committee members endorsed a few months ago. Having a “line” doesn’t mean much if you lose.
Call it a fight within a fight.
The outcome may not mean all that much to average voters, but it will to insiders.
And it will be deeply consequential to the future of Morris Republicans.