At first glance, New Jersey’s 26th legislative district, a staunchly Republican district based in Morris County, is not the most obvious place for a highly competitive GOP primary.

Its three incumbents – State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville), Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains), and Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville), who was redistricted from the neighboring 25th district – have the near-unanimous support of local GOP party faithful. They’ve also got quite a bit of money in their campaign warchests. 

Most importantly, they’re tried-and-true conservatives. All three legislators clearly reside on the right side of the GOP caucus, giving their opponents little room to criticize them as wishy-washy moderates.

And yet, a formidable slate of challengers is taking them on in next month’s primary. Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo (R-Montville) is running against Pennacchio, while former Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) and former Parsippany Councilman Robert Peluso are aiming for the district’s two Assembly seats.

By all accounts, the race is close. Both slates are campaigning hard. Even though they’ve been outspent, the challengers are still putting some serious money into the race. Internal polling shows a toss-up.

Primary elections are, as a rule, tougher to forecast than general elections. Voters can’t be sorted into their usual partisan lanes, and seemingly small factors – like how a ballot is designed or how good the local GOP’s turnout operation is in one town – can make a big difference.

Still, history and geography can provide some guide to what primary voters will decide on June 6. Here are five maps that could illuminate what’s happening this year in the 26th district.

The new LD26

Long before any primary contests were on the horizon, 11 people got together at a hotel in Plainsboro last winter and hashed out the most important part of this year’s elections: the state’s new legislative map.

While most legislative districts remained relatively unchanged on the resulting bipartisan deal map, the 26th district was not one of them. Thanks to major changes in next-door Essex County, the eastern Morris County district had to shift substantially to pick up the pieces left behind. 

Gone from the 26th district are its four Essex County towns, as well as many of the Morris towns it once had. In their place are several new Morris towns and a substantial chunk of Passaic County’s Republican-leaning suburbia. In fact, only four towns are shared by the old and new 26th districts: Lincoln Park, Montville, Morris Plains, and Parsippany.

Since Montville and Parsippany are both quite populous, those four towns account for a little over 42% of the new district’s population (and 38% of its registered Republicans). And some of the “new” towns were represented by Pennacchio and Webber in the 2000s; many were also in the 11th congressional district when Webber ran for Congress in 2018.

Still, 58% of the district hasn’t been represented by Pennacchio or Webber in at least a decade, a long time in politics. It’s possible that voters in towns like Hanover and Florham Park fondly remember the legislators they last elected in the late 2000s, but voters often have shorter memories than politicians think.

The situation is much starker for Bergen. Since he was moved into a new district entirely, only three smallish towns – Boonton Town, Mountain Lakes, and his hometown of Denville – are familiar to him. The rest of the district, representing 86% of its Republican voters, has never elected Brian Bergen to anything.

It could be that the old district lines won’t end up being terribly relevant to the ultimate results. The three incumbents are running an aggressive campaign, and they have local supporters and surrogates in the towns that they’re less familiar with.

But even still, the redrawn lines reduce the advantages that would normally come with incumbency. In more than half the district, Pennacchio, Webber, and especially Bergen will have to introduce themselves anew – a vulnerability that Mastrangelo, DeCroce, and Peluso surely hope to exploit.

Mastrangelo’s 2022 win

And as an incumbent county commissioner, Mastrangelo is in a good position to do so. Unlike any of his opponents, Mastrangelo currently represents a substantial majority of the new 26th district, and he also has recent experience running off-the-line in Morris County.

In last year’s five-way primary for three county commissioner seats, Mastrangelo was unexpectedly denied Morris GOP support for re-election. The line instead went to fellow incumbent Doug Cabana, former Freeholder Christine Myers, and Mendham Township Committeewoman Sarah Neibart.

Mastrangelo continued his campaign anyways, training his fire exclusively on Neibart, whom he saw as vulnerable to attacks of conservative disloyalty. Neibart’s mild support for LGBT-related events in Mendham Township became fodder for Mastrangelo, who said that Neibart was “support[ing] the liberal woke agenda of indoctrination of young children.”

And it worked. Despite being relegated to off-the-line Column B, Mastrangelo beat Neibart by 838 votes, 16,953 to 16,115. In fact, Mastrangelo’s victory probably helped Paul DeGroot win an overlapping congressional primary after being randomly bracketed with Mastrangelo; DeGroot is now running for county commissioner this year on Mastrangelo’s slate.

That primary cemented Mastrangelo as a force to be reckoned with, even when denied party support. Morris County makes up around 83% of the 26th district’s registered Republicans, and Mastrangelo won the Morris portion of the district 53%-47% against Neibart last year, better than his overall 51%-49% win countywide.

There are notable differences between last year’s race and this year’s, though. 

For one, Mastrangelo is running against an incumbent rather than as one, a distinction some voters will likely find important. And for another, the relatively moderate Neibart was an easy target in a Republican primary, but it remains to be seen whether Mastrangelo’s attacks on the much-more-conservative Pennacchio over his 2019 vote for the state budget will be nearly as effective.

DeCroce’s 2021 loss

The 2022 primary wasn’t the first time Mastrangelo had run off-the-line; he’d also done it just one year earlier, in a bizarre 26th legislative district primary that pitted county against county and incumbents against one another.

The chaos of 2021 started when DeCroce, who was seeking a sixth full term in the Assembly after succeeding her late husband Alex DeCroce in 2012, was unexpectedly defeated by former Pompton Lakes Councilman Christian Barranco at the Morris GOP convention. Barranco and Webber, who easily got first place at the convention, were joined together on the brand-new Morris organizational line.

But the very next day, Passaic took a different tack, backing DeCroce and Barranco while snubbing Webber. And Essex Republicans decided to award their line to DeCroce alone, passing over both Webber and Barranco.

The race only got more confusing from there. Two weeks after the Morris convention, Barranco and Webber officially teamed up, and Barranco chose to reject the Passaic line in favor of running with his new running mate. Mastrangelo, meanwhile, threw his hat in the ring after convention season was over, bracketing with DeCroce in Morris but running on his own in the other two counties.

The result was an election that, among other things, is very hard to map. Barranco and Webber won, riding on the strength of their performance in Morris County; DeCroce outright won Essex and came in second behind Webber in Passaic, but it wasn’t enough to overcome her loss in Morris. (Mastrangelo finished last everywhere but Passaic, where he was third.)

In the head-to-head between Barranco and DeCroce, which was what most observers focused on, Barranco won 52%-48%, winning most of Morris County while losing DeCroce’s hometown of Parsippany as well as the district’s five non-Morris towns.

What might Barranco’s narrow victory mean for this year? It depends.

On one hand, it shows that DeCroce, like Mastrangelo, has the ability to wage a serious off-the-line campaign. Although she didn’t win, DeCroce kept the fight alive until the very end, something most off-the-line candidates can’t say for themselves.

On the other hand, DeCroce had several advantages in 2021 that she won’t have this year. She no longer has the bonus of incumbency, and more importantly, there isn’t a split among the county parties that she can use to her advantage. If DeCroce couldn’t win with those factors working in her favor, her comeback effort will be an even steeper climb.

The 2021 gubernatorial primary

At the same time as Barranco was defeating DeCroce, Jack Ciattarelli was winning the Republican nomination in the 2021 gubernatorial election, defeating several challengers running to his right. With county party support everywhere, Ciattarelli got 49% of the vote and carried virtually every corner of the state. 

That includes the new 26th district, where Ciattarelli won with 53%; second-place finisher Phil Rizzo got 25% of the vote and Hirsh Singh received 17%. The 26th district was thus slightly more favorable terrain for Ciattarelli than the state as a whole.

Trying to draw conclusions about a 2023 legislative primary from a 2021 gubernatorial election may be a fool’s errand. It’s not really possible to draw any kind of direct comparisons between the candidates, especially since Pennacchio and his running mates are quite conservative, and thus aren’t good analogues for Ciattarelli.

But at a minimum, the gubernatorial primary is an indication of how many 26th district voters were willing to ditch the establishment-supported candidate and vote off-the-line. While many of those voters may not opt to do the same this year – and many Ciattarelli voters may be Mastrangelo or DeCroce supporters – it at least provides something of a baseline.

The 2021 primary also gives a rough sense for how many votes the candidates might be competing for this year. A total of 16,422 votes were cast in the new 26th district in 2021; in a non-gubernatorial year, that number will probably fall by a few thousand, meaning that the candidates will be aiming for perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 votes to win.

County boundaries

The final map is the simplest, and it may also be the most significant: county boundaries.

As anyone who follows New Jersey politics knows, counties are the building blocks upon which political power is built. Through the county organizational lines, county parties have tremendous influence over primary results up and down the ballot; oftentimes, a competitive primary will only come about if the county parties are in disagreement among themselves.

That’s not technically the case in the 26th district this year, since both the Morris GOP and the Passaic GOP are firmly in the three incumbents’ corner. But if the 2022 elections are any indication, there may still be a major divide between how the two counties vote.

The Morris GOP line is still relatively young, only being adopted at the start of the 2021 cycle. And in 2022, voters showed their independence from the new intrusion on their ballots, renominating Mastrangelo and only narrowly backing Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen (R-Chatham) for Congress against DeGroot.

While the Morris line was floundering, though, the Passaic GOP was flexing its muscles. Passaic Republicans delivered a massive margin for DeGroot – enough for him to win the primary overall – and also gave a huge boost to Frank Pallotta, another congressional nominee who beat the preferred candidate of his district’s largest county (in his case, Bergen County).

The way the ballots will be laid out this year only reinforces the county divide. In Morris County, Mastrangelo’s slate has Column A, meaning that their “Regular Republican Party” ticket will be on the leftmost and most visible part of the ballot. (Parsippany Mayor James Barbiero is also pushing for Mastrangelo’s ticket, giving them a further boost in the county’s largest town.)

Since they don’t have any affiliated county commissioner candidates in Passaic County, however, the Mastrangelo slate is relegated to a worse ballot position there.

There’s no guarantee that the Passaic GOP line will actually be stronger than the Morris line this year; it wasn’t in 2021, when Webber won Passaic off-the-line. A local primary in Pompton Lakes may also complicate matters, since the incumbent mayor – who was kicked off the line in favor of a rival councilwoman – is bracketed with Mastrangelo.

But if the race is close, it could be Passaic that determines the victors. Even if Mastrangelo wins Morris County, where he’s held office for more than a decade, Pennacchio might still ride a big margin from Passaic to a narrow victory.

So, what’s gonna happen?

Who knows?

The one statement that can be made with relative confidence is that Webber is very likely to win – none of his opponents have really bothered targeting him at all – and Peluso, who currently has $2,054 in his campaign account, is very likely to lose.

As for the other contests, it’s hard to say anything for certain.

Pennacchio has a long history of being a formidable Morris politician, but Mastrangelo has proven he has a strong personal brand, and some of his attacks on Pennacchio seem to be working. Bergen is well-known in Trenton for his conservative sermons, but they may not have reached his new constituents in the 26th district, many of whom have supported DeCroce in the past.

While each of the five maps presented here aims to illuminate some aspect of the primary, there’s no guarantee any of them truly will. The new district lines, Mastrangelo’s win, DeCroce’s loss, the ballot layout itself – all may or may not be important factors in determining who gets a seat in Trenton.

No matter what, the 26th district will be represented by a set of conservative Republicans next year (unless Democrats manage to pull off the upset of the century). For the next week and a half, Pennacchio, Mastrangelo, and all the rest will be doing nothing but working like hell to ensure their place among the victors.

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