RED BANK – Monmouth County Democrats, eager to hold the 3-2 Freeholder majority they won last year after being out of power for two decades, seldom use the words "Gov. Jon Corzine" in their campaign literature.
Democrats know it's going to be tough to win this year as Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie tries to flex base Republican voters and suburban independents in his challenge of Corzine, whose focus is mostly elsewhere in Democratic strongholds like Essex, Hudson, Bergen, Union and Middlesex.
So Democrats here keep their focus on the Freeholder Board and build around their candidate, Middletown Committeeman Sean Byrnes.
"We had 23 yearsof Republican rule – we can't go backwards. They're doing everything they can to pull the plug on us," longtime Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vic Scudiery told a crowd of party members at a fundraiser here at the Downtown Wednesday night for Byrnes, the man Democrats see as their most important player on the field in Monmouth County this season.
It's Byrnes' face, not Corzine's that fronts the party's website in Monmouth.
"I am in it to win it," Byrnes roared tohis audience. "Control of this county is up for grabs. We all have to work hard. I will be out there every day because it's that important."
After finally ousting the GOP from the majority in 2008, Democrats in this county of 660,000 residents battled internally earlier this year and thenlost their candidate, Freeholder Director Barbara McMorrow,when sheannounced her retirement owing to health reasons. Theysubsequently turned tothe Red Bank-raised Byrnes, an attorney and Coast Guard veteran,astheir candidate for the seat McMorrow will vacate at the end of this year.
Byrnes is running against GOP freeholder candidate/businessman John Curley, also of Middletown, who lost in his first freeholder bid last year by fewer than 400 votes.
"Curley is a very strong candidate," said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. "Monmouth never was going to be Corzine country. The reasonDemocratswon here over the course of the last three countywide elections was because they focused on local politics. Voters didn't like how Republicans ran that board, butnow voters might not like the way Democrats want to run it. Without Barbara McMorrow the incumbent running, it's going to be difficult for Democrats to hold control."
Asthe Democratic Party's statewide apparatus will have to focus on reviving damaged political infrastructure in their base – Essex and Hudson – to try to reelect the governor, Curley intends to run another shoe leathercrusade in thiscounty where Republican gubernatorial candidate Christie – and his Monmouth County-based running mate, Sheriff Kim Guadagno – want to build big numbers to counter Democratic turnout up north.
Democrats intent on clawing out another victory at the county level here like to point tosome telling stats: the fact that even though Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dick Zimmer beat U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) in Monmouth by 16,000 votesand John McCain defeated Barack Obama by 12,000 votes, freeholder candidate Amy Mallet sweated out awin over Curley.
The resultstunned Republicans forced to choke down their third straight freeholder loss in as many years.
"We've been able to distinguish county races from all other races, we're still here in a Democratic county and we're going to wage an aggressive campaign," said Monmouth County Democratic Party spokesman Michael Mangan,taking heartin voter registration numbers, where Democrats built an edge of about 11,500 votes since the 2008 Democratic presidential primary but where independent voters looking at state and national races still put their shoulders behind Republicans.
"Monmouth County voters want Democrats running county government," said Democratic strategist Pat Politano, who advised the Mallet campaign last year.
Still,that was with Obama at the top of the ticket driving up Democratic numbers, especially in towns like Neptune, Asbury and Long Branch. While Obama lost to McCain in Monmouth by 3.7%,Corzine in his 2005gubernatorial contest withGOP businessman Doug Forrester lost by a 44% to 52% margin in Monmouth, even as Corzine wonstatewide, 54% to 43%.
Incidentally, 2005 was also the last year Monmouth Republicans prevented their Democratic Party rivals from picking up at least one freeholder seat.
And there is another sign that bodes ill for Democrats.
The powerful New Jersey Educational Association (NJEA) decided to stay outof the 12th Legislative District race in which Manalapan Committeewoman Michelle Roth and Tinton Falls teacherJohn Ambergare challenging two pro-school vouchers Republicans, Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-Little Silver) and Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Colts Neck).
"That was basically a sign to us that they've given up trying to compete here," said Republican operative Tom Fitzsimmons, who's running the O'Scanlon/Casagrande reelection campaign.
If most political observers don't see Amberg/Roth as a genuine, full-deck threat to Casagrande/O'Scanlon,thestrategybehind keeping them out there and active appears mostly designed to buttress Byrnes, who effusively complimented both candidates tonight.
"Michelle Roth is one of the smartest women I've ever met and will probably be governor someday,"gushed the freeholder candidate. "John Amberg is a teacher in Irvington. He's the kind of guy I'm proud of. He's teaching in a school where there are holes in the ceiling. He's dealing with gangs. Forget about Abbott. He's paying out of his own pocket to help students go to college."
Amberg was here Wednesday night, so they gave him a microphone.
He proceeded to recount some very personal healthcare horror stories."If we don't simplify hospitalization it's going to hurt all of us," said the 12th District candidate.
If Byrnes spent the bulk of his own remarks talking about Democratic Party values, quoting Hubert Humphrey's maxim about how government exists to help those at the beginning of life, those at the end of life, and those in the shadows, and sprinkling in some biographical data (he grew up crabbing in Red Bank), he also gently gonged Corzine.
"He's got to get the message out there a little better than he's gotten it out there," said Byrnes, who moments later softened the tweak with the assertion, "Corzine cares."
Politano doesn't think it's aCurley walk by any means, andremains confident Byrnes can win. "There was a county committee meeting two nights ago and 30 chairs showed up," the operative said. "That's in August, when typically you don't have a lot of enthusiasm."
But O'Scanlon points out that even as Democrats run under the Byrnes banner, they can't blot out Corzine.
"Sean Byrnesalone on the websitedoesn't change the fact that Sean Byrnes is running with money raised by Jon Corzine," said the Republican. "Corzine knows he will have a friend in Sean Byrnes."