As the battle to replace outgoing state Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton) takes shape, the two declared candidates are beginning to make incursions outside of their home bases.
Assemblyman Mike Doherty (R-Washington Township), a Warren County legislator who began his campaign a day after he learned that Lance was moving up to Congress, feels encouraged by the response he’s received from the Hunterdon County committee men and women he’s met on the campaign trail so far. But some insiders argue that Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow (R-Flemington), a Hunterdon County native who just made her candidacy official last week, should not be counted out among the Warren County committee members, despite local contentions that the county will be in lock-step behind Doherty.
A third candidate, Hunterdon County Freeholder Matthew Holt, appears to be ready to run, and will formally announce his bid either next week or the week after.
The county committee members from Hunterdon and Warren Counties will meet in either January or early February to decide who gets to be Lance’s interim replacement in the state senate. In June, a primary will be held to determine who gets to remain on the ballot for the November general election, when voters will select a candidate to fill the two remaining years of Lance’s term in this safely Republican district.
This race is more complicated than a regional battle between the Hunterdon and Warren County Republican organizations.
Doherty, for his part, has been visiting county committee men and women since November 5th. He has to, since the more populous Hunterdon County has about 40 more committee members than Warren.
“The response has been tremendous,” said Doherty. “I would say the overwhelming majority are indicating that they’re going to support me, and they’ve liked what I’ve done.”
Doherty said he’s able to make the most inroads in the more far-flung regions of Hunterdon, outside of Karrow’s base in and around Flemington.
Karrow, who could not be reached for comment, spent today in Warren County on non-campaign related Assembly business.
Insiders say that, while Doherty runs strong with conservative voters and has a ready base in Warren, the more moderate Karrow has had the advantage of being a full-time legislator, and has been able to woo some Warren County committee members during her four years in office.
Perhaps as a sign that Warren County isn’t completely locked up for Doherty, one of its three Republican freeholders, Richard Gardner, has opted to remain neutral so far.
“Personally, I’m going to stay non-committal at this point. I like both parties very well. They’re both allies of mine, and so I am not going to make a judgment call on either one of them,” said Gardner, a fifth generation farmer from Asbury.
Gardner said that he didn’t “see it being out of the question” that Karrow will take a significant number of votes in Warren County.
Gardner said that he will support his fellow freeholder John DiMaio’s assembly bid, however. DiMaio, for his part, said that he will support Doherty, who he said “enjoys some pretty deep support in Warren County.”
“If there were a glaring reason why we shouldn’t support Mike Doherty, someone should point it out to me,” said DiMaio, who added that Doherty is more in line with him ideologically and is the senior assemblyperson from the district.
“I would have hoped the Assemblywoman would have stayed in the assembly and the next time the senate seat came open I would have supported her for it,” he said.
Warren County Republican Chairman Doug Steinhardt acknowledged that Karrow may be able to pick up some of his county committee’s members, but said that Doherty will win across the district.
“Mike’s support here is historically strong with the fiscally conservative, NRA, Right to Life element of the Republican Party,” he said. “I think he by and large represents the rank and file of the county committee in both Hunterdon and Warren Counties.”
Since Doherty has pledged to run in both the county convention and in the June primary, his assembly seat will definitely be up for grabs. If Karrow does not win the county convention, she will forego the state senate primary and seek reelection to the assembly.
So far, the assembly race in the district is more amorphous than the race for state senate.
In addition to DiMaio and possibly Karrow, Hunterdon County Freeholder Erik Peterson is said to be interested in a seat. He could not be reached for comment.
Hunterdon County Freeholder Ronald Sworen said he has been asked if he’s interested in running for Assembly, but he does not plan to next year. He’s also not sure who he’s backing for state senate.
“I’ve got to stay neutral at this point until we see who’s actually running,” he said.
Many insiders speculate that Holt, the grandson of former U.S. Sen. Clifford P. Case, is putting the pressure on Hunterdon County leaders to angle for a spot in the Assembly, while others have said that he’s struck a deal with Doherty to split the Hunterdon County vote. Neither is true, Holt said today.
“Frankly, when I make my formal announcement, which will be next week sometime, it will be both for the convention and, if successful or even if not successful, a primary run in June. So that’s where I’m headed,” he said.