It looks like a primary fight is brewing in the third congressional district.
While popular Burlington County state Senator Diane Allen continues to be the presumptive favorite for the Republican nomination for retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton’s seat, Ocean County is getting ready to field its own candidate.
George Gilmore, the Ocean County Republican chairman, has called a county committee convention to endorse a presidential candidate and, more importantly, its own congressional candidate. The meeting is tentatively set for Monday, Dec. 10th.
Despite being a Republican bulwark and having roughly equal Republican primary voter turnout with Burlington County in that district, Ocean County, which falls into the third and fourth districts, has never had a congressman of its own.
There are a number of potential Republican candidates from Ocean County, but two appear to be the favorites: freeholders John Kelly and Joe Vicari, who are both currently running active campaigns for support of the county party. Also still in the running are Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, Freeholder Gerry Little, and State Committeewoman Virginia Haines, a former assemblywoman and state lottery director.
“To my knowledge, no one is going off on his own,” said Vicari. “We’re all staying within the confines of the party.”
A new potential candidate has thrown his name in the mix as well: Toms River Councilman Moe Hill, a dentist and 35-year veteran of the Navy Reserve, where he practiced dentistry and retired with the rank of rear admiral in 2005. He was elected to the Toms River council in 2003, his first government office, and said his military background will help him carry out Jim Saxton’s legacy in protecting and improving the three military bases located in the district.
“The major issue in congressional district 3 is the mega base, which is Fort Dix, McGuire and Lakehurst,” said Hill. “It’s the largest employer in the area but I think I have a military background and would be able to work with active military leaders to improve the facilities in all three bases.”
Meanwhile, Kelly and Vicari are actively shoring up support from county committee members.
“It’s a campaign right now for county council support,” said Kelly. “If I do not receive the endorsement of the Ocean County Republican Organization, then there will be no seeking the office in a primary.”
Kelly said that even though three freeholders are vying for the county’s congressional endorsement, there has been no disruption on the freeholder board, and that he remains in good standing with Vicari — currently his chief rival for the position.
But whoever the Ocean County Republicans choose, none has the name recognition of Allen, a former Philadelphia news anchor who manages to win reelection by comfortable margins in a heavily Democratic state legislative district. But Kelly said that Allen isn’t all that well-known in Ocean County, and that, should he get the nomination, he’ll try to use his conservative credentials to siphon off just enough primary votes from Allen in Burlington and Camden counties.
Kelly seems ready for a primary challenge against a Burlington County candidate.
“We believe we can produce the numbers to win a primary fight, but more importantly taking that message to November of smaller, smarter government… Bring some good, Ocean County sense to the halls of Congress, and we believe that message will sell well,” said Kelly.
Rumpf said that he’s still in the running for now, and emphasized that the party will coalesce around someone from Ocean County.
“I believe that most of us will agree that it’s very important that there will be an Ocean County candidate.”
Gilmore could not be reached for comment.