Five Republicans are vying for the chance to try to do something no one else has been able to do in almost a half-century: Convince New Jersey voters to elect a Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate, where Democrat Cory Booker now sits.
It has been 48 years since New Jersey voters have sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly a million. In 2018, Republican and former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin spent more than $39 million, including $36 million of his own money, and lost by 11 percentage points to incumbent Bob Menendez, who had been considered vulnerable after his trial on political corruption charges ended in a hung jury.
“Statewide races are the toughest ones of all for a GOP outnumbered by a million more registered Democrats in the state,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “But even before party registrations were so lopsided, Republican Senate candidates have fared more poorly here than almost anywhere else in the nation.” Since New Jersey last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972, “the GOP has lost a staggering 15 Senate races in a row,” he said.
“Cory Booker must be prohibitively favored from the perspective of party registration and past results,” he continued. “There’s nothing in the public polling that suggests otherwise. And we should keep in mind that Vice President Biden is expected to be a strong top of the ticket in New Jersey, while President Trump is likely to be a significant drag for the Republican candidate.”
Mehta versus Singh
The leading contenders for the GOP nomination are biotech engineer Rik Mehta and Hirsh Singh, who has come under fire for a mailing that encouraged Republicans who may have already voted for Mehta to vote a second time for Singh. Also in the race are three conservatives: Patricia Flanagan and Natalie Rivera, both of whom ran unsuccessfully as independents in 2018, and retired teacher Eugene Tom Anagnos.
“Even though we’ve never had a primary like the one we’ll have next month, the best way to gauge a candidate’s strength is the support of the county party organizations, and by that measure, Rik Mehta is substantially ahead of Hirsh Singh,” Rasmussen said. “Mehta is running on the all-important party line in 17 counties, while Singh will appear on four county lines. And while Singh enjoys the support of one of the strongest party organizations in Ocean, the four counties supporting him represent about 20 percent of the expected statewide turnout, based on the last few contested GOP Senate primaries, which means Mehta will be running right next to Donald Trump as the organizational candidate on eight of every ten ballots that will be cast in the primary. Historically speaking, that’s hard to beat.”
Mehta, 42, is a biotech engineer, licensed pharmacist, attorney and adjunct law professor. He holds four degrees, including a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Center. He has worked as a pharmacist, held positions in both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and worked at both the Pfizer and Aquestive Therapeutics pharmaceutical companies. Currently, he is a partner in Licentiam Inc., a firm that streamlines the licensing process for health care professionals, and R & R Strategies, a regulatory policy and strategy firm. Mehta lives with his wife and three sons in Chester.
Endorsed last month by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, Mehta said his goals in running are “to make New Jersey more affordable — a place where people want to live, not leave.” He complains about the state’s high taxes.
“The cost of living is absurd, and property taxes keep skyrocketing,” he said. “I can say from experience that it is even harder to start a business here. I decided to run for my three kids, your kids and every person who wants to make a life and raise a family here in New Jersey.”
Mehta’s priorities: Jobs, cost of health care
Mehta said his background in biotech and health policy make him well-qualified to deal with these issues and named as his top priority lowering the cost of health care and bringing “good-paying” medical manufacturing jobs back to New Jersey from China. He also said he would work to secure additional funding for small businesses. Mehta also supports a balanced budget amendment and the reduction of “redundant regulations.”
The political newcomer is critical of Booker, saying both he and Menendez have failed to ensure that New Jersey gets its fair share of federal spending. He also noted that Booker missed the most votes in the Senate last year, almost 65%, according to govtrack.us, even more than the other presidential hopefuls.
“When Senator Booker does show up, he’s become a rubber stamp for the radical left and one of the most extreme partisans in the Senate,” Mehta said. “Just last week he held up a bipartisan police reform bill that could bring meaningful changes to policing. Senator Booker is only concerned about making his far-left political base and Hollywood elites happy; he couldn’t care less about the people he was elected to represent here in New Jersey.”
Mehta hasn’t forgotten that to get to Booker, he must get through four Republicans first. A recent mailer in which Mehta links himself to Trump calls Singh a “perennial election loser” and a RINO — Republican in name only. It contends that Singh in 2009 tweeted support for a speech former President Obama gave in Cairo and that Singh’s father contributed $1,000 to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign.
Republican county leaders across the state are also criticizing Singh. Eight GOP chairs have called for him to suspend his campaign after condemning one of his campaign mailings that they say encourages voter fraud. According to the Save Jersey website, Singh sent a letter to Republicans urging, “if you have been hoodwinked into voting for Rik Mehta, it is your patriotic duty to contact your county clerk and request a duplicate ballot to vote for the only Conservative Hirsh Singh. Your duplicate ballot will replace your earlier ballot.”
Singh told to ‘cease and desist’
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office said that claim is untrue in a letter sent to Singh telling him to “cease and desist” sending out the mailer and warning him that encouraging anyone to vote more than once in a federal election is a crime.
In a press release sent Wednesday night, Singh contended he gave proper advice, saying that several county websites and ballots indicate a voter can request a duplicate ballot if they marked their original ballot incorrectly.
A 34-year-old engineer and native of Atlantic City, Singh graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and has worked in the aerospace and defense industries. According to his financial disclosure report filed with the U.S. Senate, he is senior director at Engineering and Information Technologies Inc. in Egg Harbor.
Singh has been in attack mode against Mehta. In a May 26 press release, Singh contended that Mehta supported the Affordable Care Act and got on the ballot “by using Democrat Party operators to circulate his petition.”
This is Singh’s third attempt at a major office. In 2017, he lost the Republican gubernatorial primary and a year later he lost the GOP nomination to run for the House in the sprawling 2nd District in South Jersey despite having more money and more county endorsements than his three rivals.
On his campaign website, Singh portrays himself as the true conservative in the race and a strong Trump supporter. He states he would support a second round of tax cuts, including a reduction in the corporate tax rate to a flat 15%. Singh also said he would work to build the trans-Hudson rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York, although Trump has refused to support the project.
Singh is against abortion rights and says he would “enact” a measure that would end legal abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
In addition to having the endorsement of the Ocean County GOP, Singh has raised more money than Mehta — almost $584,00, or close to $200,000 more than Mehta. But Mehta had slightly more in the bank as of June 17: $48,000, compared with Singh’s $35,000.
Flanagan’s second run for a Senate seat
Of the three remaining candidates, only Patricia “Tricia” Flanagan has reported any fundraising to the Federal Election Commission. Her latest report, dated March 31, showed she had raised less than $15,000 and spent all but about $2,200.
Flanagan, a biotech executive, is making her second run for the Senate. In 2018, she ran as an independent against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, receiving about 0.5% of the vote.
Born in Massachusetts, Flanagan obtained an undergraduate degree from Wheaton College and went on to present her thesis in biochemistry at Brown University, according to her LinkedIn page. A Princeton resident, she is managing director and president of global marketing at Anderson Ludgate, a biopharma market research firm. She has also worked at pharma giants Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb and at medical device company BD, all of which have a presence in New Jersey.
Flanagan’s campaign website touts her Christian faith and prominently features photos of her with White House adviser — and New Jersey native — Kellyanne Conway and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as well as pictures from her campaign. The site also sells items emblazoned with her name and the slogan “Patriots Rising,” including coffee mugs, tote bags and T-shirts.
According to the campaign site, Flanagan wants to reduce government spending and income taxes and promote economic growth, especially in New Jersey’s biotech sector; she opposes minimum wage mandates. Flanagan also highlights the U.S. relationship with Israel and her work with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a multimillion-dollar global charity.
If elected, Flanagan’s site says reforming health care is her top priority. She calls the federal Affordable Care Act “unaffordable and unreliable” and promises to use her experience in the private sector to “preserve affordability (and) increase quality of care & treatment access.” The website contains few specifics, but she calls for putting the “American people in charge of their healthcare dollars and decisions,” indicating support for health savings accounts.
Rivera, another candidate who is trying a second time
Another candidate making her second Senate attempt is Natalie Lynn Rivera. A social services coordinator from Sicklerville, Rivera ran as an independent under the slogan “For the People” in 2018, garnering about 0.6% of the vote.
Rivera, 44, said she wants to give typical New Jersey residents a voice in Congress. On her Facebook campaign site she calls herself a conservative. Among her priorities are restoring Second Amendment rights that she says are “under seige” in the state and outlawing abortion.
What sets her apart from the other candidates, she said, is that she “will be a servant to the people … I think I am authentic and will serve from the heart to put their best interests at the forefront.”
Another candidate running a shoestring campaign is Eugene Tom Anagnos, a retired middle school teacher who taught in Newark and Elizabeth schools. A Greek immigrant who now lives in East Hanover, Anagnos is an Army veteran who holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Indiana University.
Anagnos decries ‘leftist indoctrination’
A strong Trump supporter, he began gathering signatures for his Senate race at Trump’s January rally in Wildwood and “subsequently outside of gun ranges” in north Jersey, he said. Anagnos added in an email that driving his campaign is his “attempt to remove NJ from leftist indoctrination and prevent CA East.” The latter is a phrase that appears on his Twitter page, where he goes by the name BuddyRider aka Gene Anagnos.
If elected, Anagnos said, his top priorities would include removing some gun control restrictions, limiting interest charges on predatory lending and restructuring education to focus on building character. He opposes abortion rights.
He said that he has “tried to live my life without malicious intent even though I know, as we all do, that decisions we make inadvertently affect others with unintended consequences” and with “love and tolerance for all of humanity.”
The primary is July 7. At least one polling place will be open in every municipality, but most voters are expected to use mail-in ballots due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Lilo Stainton contributed to this report.