SOMERSET HILLS NJ - The attention of the Garden State political world shifted to the Republican side of the aisle this week.
The retirement of veteran Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen has set off a mad scramble for position in North Jersey. Frelinghuysen represents the reliably Republican Eleventh Congressional District, and chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. His departure creates a void both in Washington and here at home.
Pols in Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Essex counties have spent the past week positioning themselves as a GOP primary develops in the Eleventh.
To make it more intriguing, this year, New Jersey will be in the cross hairs of the national political machines.
New Jersey is rarely the epicenter of the American political world, but for 2018 that has changed. With an almost non-existent path to a majority in the United States Senate, the Democrat Party has focused on the House of Representatives. The road to a Democratic majority in the House appears to run through New Jersey, and the Democrats have designs on four of the five GOP-held House seats.
Morris County holds the lion's share of the Republican primary votes in the Eleventh. Frelinghuysen is a Morris County resident. The Morris County GOP considers this to be "their" seat, so the focus of this week's jockeying has been Morris County.
In Morris County, two legislators have made moves toward the GOP nomination. Those two candidates present contrasts in style, if not in substance.
Assemblyman Tony Bucco represents the 25th Legislative District, which includes a Somerset Hills town (Bernardsville). He serves in a leadership role in the Republican caucus. Bucco, 55, is an attorney and son of one of his running mates, Senator Tony Bucco. Bucco is a lifelong resident of Boonton, where he serves as a volunteer fireman. Bucco flexed his political muscle this week when he formed an exploratory committee that includes a majority of the freeholder board and Rob Zwigard, the Morris County GOP Chairman-in-Waiting, among others.
Bucco has not officially announced his candidacy.
26th District Assemblyman Jay Webber announced his candidacy this morning, declaring that he is "all-in".
Webber is a graduate of Johns Hopkins, where he played baseball, and Harvard Law School. When he first ran for public office in 2003, PoliticsNJ.com commented that Webber came "straight out of central casting." Webber is married and father of seven.
Webber is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Reagan Ranch, and his the host of New Jersey Reagan Day. While his voting record probably doesn't differ much from Bucco's, Webber is much more full-throated in his center-right advocacy, and would probably make a good fit for the House Freedom Caucus.
While Webber and Bucco have made the most concrete moves, other prominent Republicans have indicated that they are mulling runs.
Former Peapack-Gladstone resident Kate Whitman Annis is thinking about throwing her hat in the ring. An intriguing candidate, Annis made a strong run for the GOP nomination for Congress in 2008, and showed her fundraising potential
Pundits have speculated State Senator Kristin Corrado would run. Corrado would make a strong candidate. She showed real political savvy and fundraising prowess as she navigated her way to her state senate seat in 2017, and cross-over appeal by winning two countywide races in deep blue Passaic County. If Morris County is split between Bucco and Webber - and perhaps others - then Corrado could consolidate her Passaic County base with the Essex County portion of the district and make a strong run.
Morris could be split more than two ways. Another state senator, "Jersey Joe" Penacchio will make an announcement in the near future.
The Eleventh is by no means a safe Republican district, but the GOP nominee will have the upper hand in the general election, especially if President Trump's popularity continues to increase. At the very least, the primary will provide the political blogs with plenty of fodder.