GOP Fights Dem Challenge in 25th District as Bucco Takes Senate Seat

Jon Hurdle | October 30, 2019 | Elections 2019, Politics
Republican Bucco remains on Assembly ballot; party says it will select a replacement ‘when’ he wins re-election
Top row: Republican candidates Brian Bergen, left, and Anthony Bucco; bottom row: Democratic candidates Darcy Draeger, left, and Lisa Bhimani.

Republicans are fighting to keep their hold on the 25th Legislative District where their majority has been shrinking over the last decade but where the number of registered GOP voters still heavily outweighs Democrats.

The GOP candidates for the Nov. 5 elections to the General Assembly — longtime incumbent Anthony M. Bucco, Jr. and newcomer Brian Bergen — are demonizing Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy as a tax-and-spend liberal in an attempt to galvanize their supporters, while trying to distance themselves from the incessant controversies of the Trump presidency.

“Certainly, there’s a lot of noise coming from D.C. but in New Jersey we have more than enough issues on our hands fighting against Phil Murphy’s rampant taxing and spending,” Bucco said in a statement. “I hear very little about national politics, and much more about what our state and local governments are going to do to make this district the best possible place to do business and raise a family.”

On Oct. 24, Bucco was sworn in for the state Senate seat that had been held by his father, Anthony R. Bucco, who died in September. The younger Bucco resigned his Assembly seat, as required, but remains on the Assembly ballot. His campaign manager said the Morris County Republican Committee will choose a replacement “when” Bucco is re-elected.

“The legal process according to the state constitution is being followed, and when Anthony is victorious on November 5th, his seat will be filled by someone with the same compassionate, fiscally responsible values and priorities that Anthony has fought for his entire career,” said Rob Costello, in a statement. “It is vital to maintain checks and balances on a General Assembly that currently holds a veto-proof Democratic majority and has increased taxes and spending by billions of dollars.”

Costello did not respond when asked whether a replacement for Bucco in the Assembly would be selected by the party rather than elected by voters in the 25th District.

Charge and countercharge

He accused Democrats of politicizing Bucco’s move during a personally difficult time. He said that “character” showed why they should not be elected.

Asked whether the GOP was not itself politicizing Bucco Sr.’s death by retaliating to Democratic attacks, Costello said the candidate would much rather avoid any discussion of his father’s death. “But when our opponents began lobbing rude, insensitive, out-of-line attacks just days after he buried his father, that’s something we’re going to call out for what it is every single time,” he said.

The Democrats’ campaign manager, Daniel Fleiss, said Bucco’s resignation from the Assembly shows his “contempt” for voters and insistence on disregarding the democratic process.

“Anthony Bucco’s first act as Senator should be to finally be honest with voters about what his fake candidacy for Assembly really is: a partisan power grab to bypass the will of the people and install whichever hand-picked party insider he chooses into public office. It’s exactly the self-serving Trenton politics that voters are fed up with,” Fleiss said in a statement.

In 2020, there will be a special election for the Senate in which a candidate will be elected to serve the remainder of Bucco Sr.’s term, following the requirements of the state constitution, Costello said.

During his Assembly campaign, Bucco Jr. said Murphy “has never met a tax he didn’t like,” and accused the governor of policies that are “killing our state.” The Assemblyman cited the Airbnb tax (A-1753), the Online Sales tax (A-4496) , and the Uber/Lyft tax (A-4061) as among the taxes that the Murphy administration has imposed.

To counteract those measures, he said New Jersey should impose a 2% cap on property tax increases to help “get our fiscal house in order.”

First-time Democratic candidates

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger, both seeking elected office for the first time, are also calling for lower property taxes to address an “affordability crisis,” and called for “structural reform” of the state’s finances, without being more specific.

“With New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes, it’s clear that we need to reduce our government spending with real structural reforms including a freeze of property taxes on seniors,” said Draeger, 49, a business analyst and farmer from Chester Township.

Like Democratic candidates in other competitive districts such as the 21st, Bhimani and Draeger are promising to bring down health care costs and work to control gun violence.

“When I talk to voters, I hear about the same issues again and again,” said Bhimani, 50, an obstetrician and gynecologist who lives in Mendham Township. “The soaring cost of health care and prescription drugs, our high property taxes, and the fear of gun violence in our communities.”

Whether the Democrats can tilt the balance of what has been a staunchly Republican district may depend on their ability to get voters to focus on the candidates’ policies and personalities rather than their party affiliation, said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

“In districts where the registration heavily favors one party, the other party tries to make it more a matter of the personalities of the candidates, and the Democratic challengers, particularly in the 25th District, will downplay the extent to which they are Democrats,” Weingart said.

According to the state’s latest voter-registration data, Republicans enjoy an advantage of about 8,000 in the district that covers parts of Morris and Somerset counties.

GOP’s Bergen is also a new candidate

But GOP majorities there have been dwindling in recent elections. In 2017, Bucco and his former running mate, Michael Patrick Carroll, took the district with 52% of the vote over 47% for the Democrats, down from a 58-42 advantage in 2015, and sharply below a resounding 83-16 in 2013.

The GOP’s chances of winning the district again may be hindered by the fact that one of their candidates, Bergen, doesn’t have the advantage of being an incumbent, Weingart said. Bergen hopes to take the seat held by Carroll who is retiring after 23 years in the Assembly.

If the 25th was once a “partisan, lopsided district,” it no longer is, said Brigid Harrison, professor of politics and law at Montclair State University, arguing that it offers Democrats one of their few opportunities to pick up seats in the State House.

She said the closing gap in recent years shows Republican vulnerability, and she played down the importance of voter-registration data, saying it’s a better guide to voting behavior in presidential or gubernatorial elections than in legislative races.

“When we are talking about off-year elections when only the Assembly is up for grabs, those numbers may not the best indicator,” Harrison said.

Still, the GOP candidates aim to keep hold of the district with a pro-business campaign that attempts to link their opponents to the liberal policies of the Murphy administration.

“When I go from door to door, people are very concerned about their taxes,” said Bergen, a military veteran from Denville who flew helicopters in the Iraq War and is now a small business owner. He pledged to work for veterans’ rights, and said he’s willing to work across the aisle in an Assembly where all 80 seats are being contested but that is virtually certain to remain in Democratic control.

Gun control is an issue

On gun control, a hot-button issue in the district, Bucco said he had voted to ban so-called bump stocks that increase the firing capacity of a weapon; pressed for tougher penalties for illegal firearms transfers, and called for more background checks of people who want to buy guns.

Bucco, 57, a lawyer, said he also supports legislation based on the “Responsible School Violence Prevention, Preparation, and Protection Pilot Program,” or RSVP-3, launched in 2018 by Morris County Sheriff James Gannon.

“Unfortunately, one of the questions I’m asked the most by my constituents is ‘what are you doing to keep our communities safe’? he said. “The question is more than fair, and it’s been a priority of mine since taking office.”

On health care, a policy priority of Democrats, Bucco said that as a cancer survivor himself, he knows the importance of ensuring that insurance companies cover existing conditions and said he has led legislation to reform insurance company preapprovals that delay or deny care.

While Bucco and Bergen are playing down any influence that President Trump may have on the local election, Weingart of Rutgers said the president and his impeachment fight with House Democrats could galvanize voters on both sides.

“The Republican voters of the 25th district are more likely to be comfortable with Donald Trump as president” than in some other districts, said Weingart, who predicted the GOP will retain the district.

But to the extent that anti-Trump sentiment is a motivating factor in people’s turning out in November, “that could help the Democrats,” he said.

Follow this link to an overview of the 25th Legislative District.