Can Republicans win Gloucester, and can GOP win statewide without it?

Gloucester County Republicans are facing a contested race for the leadership of a party that has not won a countywide election in twelve years, just as gubernatorial and legislative races present a possible opportunity for victory. If Republicans are to win the race for Governor, they’ll need to compete in places like Gloucester, which have voted consistently for Democratic statewide candidates in recent years. But while Democrats win Gloucester, their margins of victory may not be insurmountable.

Democrats have an edge in voter registration, but 42% of the voters are not affiliated with either party. Those are similar numbers to Atlantic (45%) and Burlington (41%) counties, where Republicans control the Freeholder boards. The last Republicans to win a Freeholder races in Gloucester County were Mary Virginia Weber in 1995, and Daniel Mangini and Stephen Atkinson in 1994.

The last Republican victories in Gloucester were in 1997, when Chuck Gill was re-elected Sheriff and James Hogan was elected County Clerk. Gill did not seek re-election in 2000, and Hogan switched parties before running for re-election in 2002.

2008 was a blowout for Democrats – Barack Obama and Frank Lautenberg carried Gloucester by 17,000 votes, about 55%, and Stephen Sweeney won re-election to his Freeholder seat by 21,000 votes. Warren Wallace, a Freeholder with a taint of ethical questions, still won re-election by 13,000 votes. But statewide races have been a bit closer in recent years. In 2006, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez won Gloucester by just 6,200 votes over Thomas Kean, Jr., even as Democratic Freeholder candidates were winning by 16,000. In the2005 race for Governor, Jon Corzine beat Doug Forrester there by 8,000 votes while Democrats were winning the Freeholder race by 14,000 votes.

John Kerry carried Gloucester by 6,800 votes over George Bush in 2004. And in the 2000 Senate race, Corzine’s margin over Bob Franks was just 142 votes.

The key player in the Democratic domination of Gloucester County has been Sweeney, a labor leader and the Senate Majority Leader. In 2001, narrowly unseated 28-year incumbent Raymond Zane after a major intra-party battle led Zane to switch parties and run as a Republican. Sweeney has played a major role in convincing a multitude of local elected officials to switch parties over the last few years.

Republicans still had legislators representing Gloucester County as recently as 2003, when John Matheussen and George Geist served in the Senate. Matheussen resigned to become Executive Director of the Delaware River Port Authority (he is now a political ally of South Jersey Democrats) and Geist lost by 63 votes in one of the most expensive State Senate races in New Jersey history.

In the county’s largest municipality, Washington Township, (pop. 51,827), Republicans are no longer competitive with Democrats holding every local office. Republican rising stars, like Councilwoman Michelle Martin and former Assemblyman/Councilman Stephen Altamuro, are now Democrats.

But the county’s largest municipality is competitive when it comes to statewide candidates. Obama beat John McCain by just 245 votes in 2008; in the same election, Democrat Matthew Lyons was elected Mayor with 61% of the vote, and Democrats won two Council seats by more than 2,000 votes. Kean carried it in the ’06 Senate race by 394 votes. Corzine beat Forrester by 462 votes, while Democratic Assembly candidates won Washington Township by around 2,000 votes.

Can Republicans win Gloucester, and can GOP win statewide without it?