Morris GOP votes for new county line on primary ballots - Open Primaries
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Morris GOP votes for new county line on primary ballots

Posted by Russell Daniels on February 12, 2021 at 12:48 PM

Morris GOP votes for new county line on primary ballots

written by William Westhoven for the Morristown Daily Record

The Morris County Republican Committee voted to institute a county line to identify the primary candidates it will endorse on future ballots, settling a long-running debate.

Committee members voted 305-143 during a virtual meeting Saturday to end the era of open primaries, a move supporters of the measure say is needed to contend with increasing Democratic footing in a county that has long been a Republican stronghold, said Vice Chairman Peter King.

Morris County was one of three GOP county committees in New Jersey that had yet to adopt a party line.

"We were fighting with one hand tied behind our back for many, many years," King said. "Now we are going to be able to fight the same way as the Democrats. It's a fair fight now."

A small but vocal group of Republicans opposed to ending open primaries waged a fierce campaign leading up to Saturday's vote, including a lawsuit to halt it.

Another group of Morris Republicans joined Scapicchio and Sette in public opposition.

"This current effort to establish a party line is a thinly-veiled attempt at keeping control of a Republican party that has recently suffered some of the most stunning defeats in our history," the letter reads. "We have lost control over one of the most solidly Republican congressional districts for the second time in many generations. For the first time in our history, Morris County voted Democrat in a presidential election."

Open primaries, they argue, have since 1935 "succeeded in electing Republicans to office almost 100% of the time."

Sette, a longtime committee chairman who stepped down a few years ago, said the change would effectively disenfranchise 134,000 Morris County Republican voters by placing the decision for the primary candidates in the hands of 678 county committee people.

King said some in opposition are trying to regain power they lost in 2018 when Ron DeFilippis beat Rob Zwigard for the Morris County Republican Committee chair position by a narrow 243-239 vote.

Laura Ali, who championed the drive for a party line, became acting chair when DeFilippis stepped down due to health reasons in 2019. 

"I am thrilled that our county committee members have had their voices heard," Ali said. "This is a tremendous win for committee people, and we are excited to move the party forward in this positive direction."

King said the "little core group continues to fight this, more to try to set up a loss for Laura Ali so they can run against her in a year and a half."

"Life is contentious. But this was a mandate," said Sen. Joe Pennacchio, whose District 26 is centered in Morris County and who supports the party line. "Almost 70% voted in favor of the line, voted in favor of empowering themselves with that decision going forward, and who they want to trust with their representation, whether it's federal, state or local."

Pennacchio said the vote also represented a mandate for Ali's leadership.

Purple Morris

A look at New Jersey voter registration data in Morris County illustrates the challenges Republicans face there in 2021 and beyond. Morris GOP registrations in 2000 were 94,837, more than double that of Democrats, with 41,223. That gap narrowed to less than 39% in 2010, at 113,229 to 69,911.

As of this month, the gap is only about 15%, with 134,338 to 114,348. Much of the GOP advantage evaporated during Donald Trump's campaign and term as president: The party still held that 39% advantage in 2015, with 111,141 to 67,952.

Registration surged on both sides after Trump took office. By 2017, 125,095 Republicans were registered in Morris. But with 90,069 Democrats, the gap tightened to 28%.

A coalition of Garden State progressives currently is asking a federal court to strike down the party-line procedure as an unconstitutional and anti-democratic practice wielded by county party machines that stymie competition in primaries.

King said that either way, the Morris GOP committee has taken the steps it needs to level a field that already has seen the party lose ground in the county. In 2015, only 35 Democrats were sitting in elected public office. By 2020, that number nearly doubled to about 60.

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published this page in Open Primaries in the News 2021-02-12 12:48:02 -0500