A real race is developing in the 16th district State Assembly GOP primary, where Freeholders Denise Coyle and Rick Fontana and former Freeholder Kenneth Scherer are seeking Kip Bateman’s Assembly seat. Bateman is running for the Senate, where Walter Kavanaugh is retiring after 32 years in the Legislature. Local pundits say that Coyle and Fontana are the leading candidates in a contest that is expected to be decided at an open GOP convention. A protege of former Governor (and Somerset County Freeholder Christine Todd Whitman), Coyle served as Mayor of Branchburg (Bateman’s hometown) before winning election as Freeholder in 1995. She won a valuable endorsement this week from Assembly Republican Conference Leader Peter Biondi, who could help her add his hometown, Hillsborough. The Biondi endorsement is especially damaging to Scherer, a former Mayor of Hillsborough. Insiders say that Hillsborough GOP Muncipal Chairman Michael Merdinger and former GOP leader Fred Quick, both close to Biondi, are unlikely to help Scherer win local county commitee votes. Other Somerset towns may be hesitant to give both Assembly seats to one town. Fontana is a strong base in his hometown, Bridgewater, which has the largest block of votes at the convention. A former Bridgewater Councilman (he also served as a Councilman in North Plainfield) and a Freeholder since 1997, Fontana also served as a GOP Municipal Chairman and as the Republican State Committeeman from Somerset County. Open seats don’t come along often in this reliably Republican district. Raymond Bateman, then the 29-year-old Executive Director of the Republican State Committee, won Somerset County’s single Assembly seat in a 1958 special election. Redistricting gave Somerset an extra Assembly seat in 1967, and with Bateman running for an open Senate seat, Freeholder John Ewing and Webster Todd, Jr., the son of the former Republican State Chairman (and brother of the future Governor) won the two seats. Todd did not seek re-election to a second term (he went to Washington to take a job in the Nixon administration) and was replaced by former Bernardsville Councilwoman Millicent Fenwick. Fenwick resigned from the Assembly in late 1972 to become state Consumer Affairs Director. Former Somerset County Court Judge Victor Rizzolo won a January 1973 Special Election to fill the seat, and won a full two-year term in November 1973. Rizzolo declined to run again in 1975 and was replaced by Kavanaugh. When Bateman ran for Governor in 1977, Ewing moved up to the Senate and was replaced by Elliott Smith, who served for six years before retiring. He was replaced by Jack Penn, who spent ten years in the Assembly. Penn retired in 1993 and was replaced by Kip Bateman. Ewing retired from the Senate in 1997, when Kavanaugh moved to the upper house. He was succeeded by Biondi, who had challenged him in a GOP primary two years earlier.