NJ-03 Race Profile: Gibbs vs. Richter could get very ugly, very quickly

MT. HOLLY, N.J. – The battle lines are being drawn and the likelihood of an NJ-07 style “deal” appears to be… not very likely. So begins the NJ-03 GOP primary, Save Jerseyans, and it looks to be a bloody one.

First some history.

It’s been awhile since there was a competitive Republican Primary in the 3rd District.

Following the retirement of Jim Saxton, (who served in Congress between 1984 and 2009), the respective Republican machines of Ocean and Burlington counties locked horns for control of the 3rd Congressional District House seat. It didn’t end well. Democrat John Adler held the seat for one term immediately following Saxton’s departure. The came Jon Runyan and Tom MacArthur, both compromise candidates for bosses George Gilmore and Bill Layton who didn’t want to risk repeating the 2008 fiasco.

The organizations’ abilities to turn out votes was roughly equal. In June 2016 (the last presidential cycle), then-incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur fetched 23,976 votes from Ocean County and 22,288 from Burlington.

South Jersey’s CD3

However, that primary was uncontested. There hasn’t been a genuinely contested NJ-03 Ocean vs. Burlington primary since 2008 when Chris Myers of Medford defeated John Kelly of Eagleswood Township (and Myers ultimately lost to Adler).

Other things have changed, too.

Democrat Andy Kim defeated MacArthur in 2018 by a hair. Gilmore is headed to jail. Layton is (publicly) retired from the Burlco chairmanship. Burlington County government is now in Democrat hands since its burbs have gone full-woke. The playing board has changed.

Enter Kate Gibbs and David Richter.

Once a rising NJGOP star, Gibbs lost her Burlington Freeholder seat in the 2018 wave election. She lost by 10,000 votes but still led MacArthur in the county by about 11,000 votes. Some Republicans believe the feisty millennial female with deep labor ties (shes deputy director for the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative) is the party’s best bet to limit its losses in Burlington this fall and, with a strong Ocean County showing, power the party past Andy Kim to reclaim the NJ-03 seat.

Gibbs’s campaign is spearheaded by Chris Russell, the battled-hardened veteran GOP operative who steered Runyan and later MacArthur to cumulatively four victories district-wide in NJ-03. She has the support of the Burlington GOP (which already gave her the line) and GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. She’s also getting backing from GOP electeds and most of the establishment including Senator Kristin Corrado (LD-40), Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (LD-26), Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (LD-13), Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (LD-25), Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz (LD-21), Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (LD-39), Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (LD-8), GOP Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Tom MacArthur.

Richter isn’t without his advantages.

Though he just controversially jumped to the district after Van Drew derailed his run in NJ-02, Richter (an ex-construction CEO who grew up in Willingboro) is a potential self-funder who will be able to out-spend Gibbs should he so choose. Chris Christie reportedly coaxed him into the NJ-03 race. He’s also retained Bill Stepien as a GC tactician and, as of Wednesday, Tom Bonfonti as a campaign manager. Stepien isn’t only a former White House political director. He has deep ties in Ocean County Republican politics like Bonfonti who is leaving his post as Ocean GOP executive director to run the Richter effort. Stepien also landed Richter a speaking slot at Tuesday’s Trump rally in Wildwood. Will Trump  World go to bat for Richter?

Andy Kim

Who boasts the overall edge?

It’s too soon to say. The Ocean line will likely prove dispositive. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Richter winning district-wide running against President Trump’s ballot column in both counties. He’d need to empty his personal fortune onto the airwaves and into online advertising to even have a chance at that feat. If there’s a county split? Like the days of old? Flip a coin. Gibbs is coloring Richter as an outsider coming in to buy the seat, but the district has a recent history (see MacArthur) of accepting outsiders.

The only certainty appears to be a bruising Republican primary, the first in over a decade. Closely-matched opposing camps and plenty of interesting story lines (like the fact that Russell, a Gibbs friend and mentor, was Richter’s GC in NJ-02 before Van Drew’s defection from the Democrats) make for compelling political theater. This could get personal. Personal primaries turn ugly on a dime, for those district-specific reasons and also because, frankly, candidates of the same party often have few ideological disagreements upon which to distinguish themselves from the other candidate.

Tough primaries are actually good for the party (I know, a minority opinion!) assuming what results is an intense discussion of ideas and general election strategies, one which makes both candidates sharper (or reveals which candidate isn’t up to taking on Andy Kim and the DCCC). Democrats weren’t worse off for Obama v. Clinton. The GOP didn’t suffer for the 2016 Trump battle royal.

If it’s four months of personal attacks and insider baseball in NJ-03? That might be a different story and a possible repeat of the 2008 meltdown. Stay tuned.

One would hope that, whatever the outcome, a labor union rep and construction contractor can be counted on to rebuild any bridges burned in the nomination process.