New Jersey Republicans eye a long-shot as legislative primary day nears

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It’s a long shot, but New Jersey Republicans — armed with a new district map and a public they believe is chafing at two decades of Democratic control of the Legislature — think they have their best chance in decades to take the Assembly, Senate or both.

That may be why there are far more competitive Republican legislative races than Democratic ones in Tuesday’s primary.

In two heavily GOP North Jersey districts where the winner of the primary is virtually assured to win the general election, Republican candidates are fighting over who’s more loyal to the right, with battles over issues like sex education, LGBTQ issues and gun rights dominating the campaign rhetoric.

But the races in two South Jersey districts that are expected to be competitive in the general election and will be pivotal to Republicans’ chances at legislative control have centered in part on a different debate: Who will be more electable against a well-funded Democratic machine that has dominated the region for 20 years but has begun to show signs of weakness?

Republicans’ chances of regaining control are slim. Democrats currently hold a 25-15 majority in the Senate and a 46-34 advantage in the Assembly. All 120 seats are on the ballot in November.

Here’s a look at the more competitive primary races to pay attention to on Tuesday.

District 3

(Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland counties)

Almost two years ago, this district saw one of the most shocking events in recent New Jersey political history. Republican Ed Durr, an unknown truck driver who had run unsuccessfully for public office before with little notice, defeated Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney — the second most powerful elected official in the state.

Durr’s Assembly running mates, Beth Sawyer and Bethanne McCarthy Patrick, also defeated well-entrenched Democratic incumbents John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro.

But Durr and Sawyer never liked each other. They managed to keep their disagreements low profile until late last year, when Sawyer began testing the idea of a primary run against Durr before abandoning it, casting about for other candidates and, after those efforts failed, deciding to make the run after all.

Sawyer, whose sole Assembly running mate is Joseph Collins Jr., has sought to frame the race as one of pragmatism vs. ideological rigidity. Durr, she says, poses for conservative causes by introducing bills on hot-button issues like gun rights and abortion, but has gotten little done for the district while his history of inflammatory statements and social media posts make him vulnerable to Democrats. (Burzichelli is heavily favored to win the Democratic state Senate nomination over progressive challenger Mario De Santis).

Sawyer and Durr, however, are tied at the number of sponsored bills that have been signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, at one each. But Sawyer has emphasized her fight to upgrade Salem County 911’s system as something to improve the daily lives of her constituents.

Sawyer has sent mailers showing Durr’s social media posts, some from 2017, including posing with a scantily clad woman, smoking what the mailer suggests is a joint (Durr said it’s actually a Swisher Sweets cigar) and liking an unidentified user’s Facebook post that read “if someone REALLY doesn’t want a child, I SURE HOPE there will be an organization to Neuter/Spay them AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to stop with the RIFF-RAFT.”

Democrats, who did not take Durr’s challenge seriously in 2021, held back that year on attacking him over his social media posts.

“His baggage and extreme rhetoric dragged down Republicans in Gloucester County last year and he’ll do it again if he’s the nominee,” Sawyer said in a statement, referring to Republican losses in county-level races.

“When given a chance to defend this record and debate me he didn’t have the courage to show up. His desperate attacks against me are backfiring because people know the truth," Sawyer said. "If Republicans want to hold this seat, Ed Durr cannot be our nominee.”

But Durr, whose 2021 win catapulted him to a sort of fame on the right, has managed to win support from all three county Republican organizations in the district and has a large grassroots following. Durr’s Assembly running mates are McCarthy Patrick and Tom Tedesco, Jr.

“I’m just over what Sawyer says. She says a lot of things. She implies a lot of things. I’ve read that she’s called me a coward,” Durr said. “Wouldn’t a coward be someone who doesn’t push forward legislation but acts like they’re a conservative? At least I do what I say I’m going to do. I’ve never abstained from a vote, while she has on abortion.”

District 4

(Parts of Camden, Gloucester and Atlantic counties)

Durr’s 2021 victory over Sweeney has Republicans confident that they can flip the neighboring 4th District, which Democrats have held for 20 years. Democratic state Sen. Fred Madden’s retirement has only reinforced that.

Assemblymember Paul Moriarty is leading Democrats’ ticket as a state Senate candidate in that party’s uncontested Senate primary.

But like in the 3rd District, Republicans have disagreements over electability — and the three county Republican organizations in the district are split over who they’re supporting.

Gloucester County Commissioner Nick DeSilvio and his running mates, Denise Gonzalez and Michael Clark, are backed by the Gloucester County GOP. The Atlantic and Camden County GOP back former Washington Township Councilmember Chris Del Borrello, who helps run a family check-cashing business, and his Assembly running mates, Matthew Walker and Amanda Esposito.

DeSilvio is close to Durr, who employs his wife as his chief of staff. Like Durr, DeSilvio’s social media posts have alarmed some Republicans, who view them as campaign fodder for Democrats, including a 2020 Facebook post on abortion in which DeSilvio wrote “A woman does have a choice! Keep her legs closed!” Democrats highlighted DeSilvio’s social media rhetoric in their successful 2022 campaign to keep control of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners.

Del Borrello’s ticket is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside help from a super PAC funded by the Operating Engineers union called Stronger Foundations. Walker, one of his Assembly running mates, is a member of the Operating Engineers Local 825 executive board.

DeSilvio called Del Borrello a “puppet of the establishment” propped up by Atlantic County GOP Chair Don Purdy, who led the effort to put together an alternative slate to DeSilvio’s in the district. He’s also attacked Del Borrello over a defunct business his brother ran that rented strippers and novelty acts to bachelor parties — including a little person dressed as a leprechaun who rode a tricycle.

“He decided to start his own war, and now it’s Republicans who suffer because there’s a split,” DeSilvio said.

DeSilvio suggested that his rivals’ support by the Operating Engineers’ super PAC shows they’re not true conservatives.

“[Stronger Foundations] gave to Hillary Clinton, Phil Murphy, and here’s the kicker: they championed the gas tax [increase],” he said.

But DeSilvio is also getting help from a Democratic-leaning source: A super PAC closely associated with South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. American Representative Majority — called American Democratic Majority until just last week — recently sent flyers attacking Del Borrello without mentioning DeSilvio.

“As far as electability is concerned, I just think that we have solid, direct evidence that even the Norcross Democrats want to run against Nick DeSilvio,” Del Borrello said. “They think he’s the weaker candidate. They are directly interfering in our Republican primary to deliberately prop up the weaker Republican candidate, Nick DeSilvio. I think that speaks volumes of who the Democrats are afraid of. They’re afraid of my ticket.”

District 24

(Parts of Morris, Sussex and Warren counties)

Two dueling Assembly slates are trying to show off their conservative bonafides.

Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia and Chester Mayor Mike Inganamort are competing against Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski and Lafayette Board of Education President Josh Aikens.

The northwestern district is one of the reddest in the state, where winning the primary is tantamount to winning a general election. GOP candidate for governor Jack Ciattarelli would have won the district by nearly 30 points in 2021.

The race comes with a unique factor: Sussex County Republicans — which makes up a plurality of the district — does not have so-called party lines on their ballots, which usually gives party-backed candidates preferential ballot placement. Fantasia and Inganamort have the party line in Morris County, which makes up around a third of Republican primary voters, while Sarnoski and Aikens have the line in Warren County, which only makes up a sliver of the district.

Both slates have been unequivocal in their opposition to abortion and support for gun rights. Aikens and Sarnoski have questioned the conservative credentials of their opponents — accusing Inganamort of promoting environmental, social, and corporate governance, an investment strategy aimed at combining social and environmental consequences with investments. Inganamort has dismissed the criticism.

He and Fantasia are running on a platform promising to repeal a "radical 'woke' school curriculum," require voter identification at the polls and crack down on crime and drugs.

While a Senate primary was taking shape a few months back it ultimately ended when perennial candidate Steve Lonegan decided to not run against Assemblymember Parker Space (R-Sussex), who was going to retire from the Legislature until incumbent Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) unexpectedly announced his retirement.

District 26

(Parts of Morris and Passaic counties)

Incumbent Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) is outspending his Republican primary challenger nearly 5-1. But the challenger, Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo, is getting all the headlines. Not all of them are good.

On May 19, the NRA tweeted that Mastrangelo was sending out knockoff NRA postcards claiming the gun rights group had endorsed him. The NRA is backing Pennacchio, who has served in the Statehouse since he was first elected to the Assembly in 2000. In 2008, he won a race to join the Senate and is now a formidable member of the minority.

“For decades, NRA members and gun owners have trusted our orange postcards as a reliable guide to identifying the candidates most committed to upholding the Second Amendment,” NRA spokesperson Billy McLaughlin said in a statement to POLITICO. “Earning the NRA endorsement is highly sought-after and we are duty-bound to unmask any candidates who try to mislead voters by falsely claiming this endorsement.”

Mastrangelo did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Last year, Mastrangelo defeated former Mendham Mayor Sarah Neibart in the Republican commissioner primary after going after her for attending a drag queen story hour in her town 2021. His ability to win without the party line also makes him a formidable challenger.

This cycle, Mastrangelo is trying a similar attack against Pennacchio because he supported Neibart’s campaign. Pennacchio, for his part, has been among the more vocal Republicans against school standards that include teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation, including calling it ‘indoctrination.”

Reached by phone this week, Pennacchio said he was between rounds of door knocking. While campaigning, he said he’s finding people know him from his 20 years in office. He’s confident in his ticket, which includes incumbent Assemblymembers Brian Bergen and Jay Webber, both fellow Morris County Republicans. And he cites as allies county government colleagues of Mastrangelo.

“It seems like the people who know my opponent the best like him the least,” Pennacchio said.

District 27

(Parts of Essex and Passaic counties)

The Democratic primary here is a closely watched clash between two sitting senators, Richard Codey and Sen. Nia Gill. But there have been few fireworks among the two former allies who agree on most issues.

Codey has also been absent from the campaign trail and hasn’t cast a vote in Trenton since early March.

A source close to Codey, who was granted anonymity to talk about sensitive issues, said Codey is “battling some just very minor health issues,” working from home, is doing OK and “still is running for reelection.”

Codey, who goes by “Gov. Codey” because of his stint in the office following the resignation of Jim McGreevey in 2004, also has wide name recognition in the district.

Gill did not respond to a request for comment

Unless something shifts, Codey, who has spent over $200,000 compared to Gill’s $8,900 through the end of May, is widely expected to win. Codey is running on the same ticket as incumbent Assemblymember John McKeon and Murphy ally Alixon Collazos-Gill, wife of Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who is also up for reelection and on the ticket.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misquoted Nick DeSilvio's social media post on abortion.