Local races could a more heated year than usual in New Jersey’s Atlantic County, where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casinos saw a crazed 1990s heyday before their precipitous decline in the past decade. Michael Suleiman, who took the helm as chairman of the county’s Democratic organization in June, is hoping a strong showing for Hillary Clinton will help his party crack Republicans’ dominance in the resort town’s surrounding areas.
Though Atlantic City itself is majority Democratic, the county is home to Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2) and longtime Republican fixtures like U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo (R-2) and County Executive Dennis Levinson.
Formerly a legislative aid and deputy chief of staff to State Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), Suleiman believes this cycle could be a time for challenging to LoBiondo and laying the groundwork for Democratic candidates to be competitive against Brown and Levinson in years to come. Public school teacher Brenda Brathwait and military veteran Steve Stokes will be vying for seats on the county’s freeholder board in November.
“We do great in the presidential years and we get killed in the off-years,” he said. “And we really need to systematically change that, but it’s going to take some time. So I think we’re just going to start small. I very much think of our county party as the little engine that could.”
Suleiman has called for LoBiondo and county Republicans to speak out against their unlikely presidential nominee, though those Republicans have hewed to the same cautious stance as many Democrats in a town that still has Trump’s name written into its skyline.
Suleiman called Trump’s reactionary populism, and the accusations of racism and xenophobia that follow many of his public appearances, an unexamined handicap for local Republicans. He pointed to former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1988 and whose endorsement Trump hesitated to reject.
“There have been instances in which the national parties on both sides have disavowed a candidate or candidates based on rhetoric, and you haven’t seen that from the Atlantic County Republicans,” he said. “When David Duke ran as a Republican, he had the president and a whole lot of Republican leaders disavow him and say ‘This guy does not represent our party, we’re going to defeat this guy.’”
He added that LoBiondo would do well to further distance himself from the Trump campaign. LoBiondo endorsed Governor Chris Christie during his unsuccessful presidential bid and has only pledged his support to the “Republican nominee” without using Trump’s name.
The Atlantic County Democrats are running software engineer Dave Cole against the congressman, with attack ads focusing on his accepting campaign donations from Trump in past elections. News that the Trump Taj Mahal casino will close its doors after labor day, the fifth casino closure in Atlantic City since 2014 and a further blow to the region’s economy, could have unpredictable effects on the margins in that race.
“Certainly he’s been around the block for a while, he’s been there for twenty years,” Suleiman said. “I think he of all people would have the political capital to renounce this guy.
“It’s no secret that the presidential race is going to dominate turnout. It’s going to dominate how well both parties do, not just in New Jersey but nationally, and it seems as though we have a great candidate in Hillary Clinton — and the extent to which there’s chaos in the Republican party with Trump.”
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of PolitickerNJ and Observer Media.