Partisan primaries in New Jersey are usually very low turnout elections. Mostly they are uncontested, so only die hard partisans, poll workers and their friends who bring them doughnuts bother to vote. In Atlantic Highlands last year, of the roughly 700 registered Republicans, only 101 voted in the primary. Only 68 or the roughly 800 Democrats voted in the 2014 primary.
In contested primaries on a local level, the candidate with the “Party line” on the ballot usually has a huge advantage over a challenger.
The “Party line” advantage is being challenged in Atlantic Highlands in this year’s Republican primary on June 2. Two long term Republican Councilmen are competing to be the Party’s nominee for mayor. Incumbent Mayor Fred Rast, first elected in 2007, is keeping his promise to term limit himself out of office. Councilman Jack Archibald and Councilman Lou Fligor both want to be mayor.
The Atlantic Highlands County Committee members, those party members who are elected in primaries every two years to represent Republican voters in Party business, including endorsements and the election of the all powerful County Party Chairman, were divided 4-4 when they met in February to choose between Archibald and Fligor to be the candidate for mayor.
Siding with Archibald is GOP Municipal Chairwoman Jane Frotton, who prevailed upon County GOP Chairman Shaun Golden to award “the line” to Archibald. Siding with Fligor is Mayor Rast. Fligor decided to let the voters choose the nominee and filed for a primary race against Archibald.
The GOP divide in Atlantic Highlands goes back at least 12 years. In 2003 when Mayor Mike Harmon decided not to seek reelection, both Rast and Archibald wanted to run for mayor. Then, as now, the local Republican Committee members were divided 4-4 on who to nominate. Rast bowed out in favor of Archibald who went on to lose to Democrat Peter Donoghue in the general election.
In 2007, Archibald wanted a rematch with Donoghue and Rast let it be known that if he didn’t get the GOP nod that he would run as an Independent. Rather than risk Donoghue winning a second term by splitting the Republican vote, Frotton and the committee nominated Rast who went on to defeat Donoghue 55%-45%.
Despite the historical divisions within the GOP and the fact that Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 806 to 710, the Republicans hold 4 of the 6 seats on the council and the mayor’s office.
Fligor’s strategy for overcoming Archibald’s “party line”advantage is to “let the voters decide” by appealing to everyone to vote for him, whether they are eligible to vote in the primary or not. Fligor told me he knocks on doors without the benefit of having a list of voters to get a feel of what matters to the residents. “I work for everyone in town,” Fligor said, “regardless of party of if they vote.”
Prior to the April 8 deadline to switch parties, 27 Democrats and 13 unaffiliated voters became Republicans, according to the Monmouth County Voter Registration Office. Unaffiliated voters can declare themselves partisan at anytime including at the polls on Tuesday. Fligor says he is not encouraging people to switch parties, but he believes, and hopes, that they are doing so to vote for him. “If you do the right thing, people notice and will respond.”
Archibald was coy when I asked him if he was working to turnout Republican voters or if he too was expanding the primary electorate to unaffiliated votes. “We’re a few days before the election and you’re asking my strategy?” Archibald said during a phone interview this morning. I told him I thought it was a fair question in light of the fact that 40 voters, 27 of them Democrats, had changed parties before the deadline to vote in the primary, a fact that he seemed unaware of.
“The people I am talking about are very excited about the team I’m running with,” Archibald said, referring to France Karras and Jim Krauss, the Republican Council candidates who are running, on the “party line” unopposed. “We’ve got a good Republican team, and we’re appealing to younger Republican voters. The people we’re talking to feel very comfortable that we will be watching out for their finances.”
“We’re in uncharted territory, never having had a primary before,” Archibald continued, “If you can tell me how many people will turnout, I’ll tell you how we’re doing.” I told him that I thought there would be more than 100 voters. “If 250 people vote, is that good for you or for Lou?” I asked. He wouldn’t say.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination of Tuesday will be slated to compete with Rhonda LeGrice, the unopposed Democratic nominee, in November.
A sample ballot for both the Democratic and Republican primaries in Atlantic Highlands can be found here.