NJ-02: Fitzherbert wins Gloucester GOP’s support as South Jersey counties present divided front

By Matt Rooney

Somers Point engineer and N.J. politics neophyte Brian Fitzherbert has earned the support of Gloucester County’s Republican Party, Save Jerseyans.

“We had an excellent crop of candidates to interview this year, and each one of them understands how important Gloucester County is going to be to their path to victory in November,” said Chairman Jim Philbin.  “Republican registration numbers in Gloucester County are growing at a faster rate than nearly every county in the state, and Governor Murphy’s big tax and spend budget announcement this week only pours fuel on that fire.  Add to that Senator Menendez’s corruption case and his crony going to jail for Medicare fraud, and Republicans have a lot of reasons to feel confident about our prospects for success.”

Philbin’s party also endorsed Bob Hugin for U.S. Senate and Paul Dilks, a South Jersey radio host, for NJ-01.

NJ-02 is nevertheless the more interesting situation (in terms of assessing a competitive race) given the 8-man field (!) lacking a clear front runner and an extremely divided county support environment throughout New Jersey’s sprawling, southernmost federal jurisdiction. Let’s briefly break it down:

GLOUCESTER: It’s hard to say for sure since it’s been decades since there’s been a competitive Republican primary but, when the retiring Frank LoBiondo ran unopposed in NJ-02, Gloucester County (which backed President Trump in 2016) represented approximately 13% of the total 2016 district primary vote. Can Fitzherbert defend his column?

OCEAN AND BURLINGTON: The only true “machine” counties left in the N.J. GOP are lining up behind Hirsh Singh, the well-heeled 30-something Indian American candidate from Atlantic County who has promised to sink $2 million into his congressional campaign. Despite these counties’ heft in other districts and statewide GOP politics generally, Ocean only represents around 10% of the district; Burlington is less than 1% (with Bass River and Washington townships contributing only 199 votes to the last NJ-02 primary). 

CAPE  MAY: The GOP organization in presumptive Democrat nominee Jeff Van Drew’s backyard went with its former Assemblyman, Sam Fiocchi, who subsequently lost a reelection bid in 2015 after only one term in Trenton. Cape May isn’t populous (except when it’s loaded up with summer tourists) but it contributed a significant 21% of the total raw primary vote last time.

SALEM: New Jersey’s least populous but lean-red county backed Somers Point Councilman Jim Toto.

UNDECIDED: Atlantic (33%), Cumberland (11%), and Camden (528 votes in 2016 from Waterford) are the chips still on the table. Fiocchi represented Cumberland County as an assemblyman and, earlier, as a freeholder, so he may have an edge there. Fiocchi also probably has a little bit of a name recognition edge in this contest since a substantial portion of the district (about 1/3 of it) has seen him on the ballot before. Atlantic is tougher to decide but, given Ocean County Chairman George Gilmore’s close relationship with the Atlantic GOP organization, Singh (who also lives in the county) is probably a favorite to win the largest remaining prize on the board. Singh could get a strong challenge there, however, from Toto who, I’m told by sources on the ground, has made a positive impression on committee members with his affable, folksy manner.

Four other Republicans – conservative activist Seth Grossman, ‘Bikers for Trump’ activist Mark McGovern, retired FBI agent Robert Turksavage, and defense attorney John Zarych – are considered relative long-shots for securing any formal county support. Zarych might be best poised to generate an upset in Atlantic of everyone left on the list above given his long history of involvement in county GOP politics (e.g. he headed John McCain’s local effort there in 2008).

Then again? In a crowded 8-man primary with a split result from the counties? It’s difficult to discount any possibility.

Van Drew is a tough nut to crack but this race is interesting independent of how November turns out and the intermediary period could tell us a lot about how the post-Christie South Jersey Republican Party will function (or malfunction). Stay tuned.