COURT HOUSE - New Jersey is considered a blue state in today’s political environment. The state has given a majority of its votes to every Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.
The governor and the state’s two senators are Democrats. The Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.
Cape May County is and has been a Republican stronghold in a heavily blue South Jersey. In Cape May County, only one Democrat has won a seat on the Board of Chosen Freeholders in decades.
Registered Republicans in the county amount to 41% of the total. Independents comprise 36%. Democrats are less than a quarter of the electorate, at 23%.
Republicans tend to do well in county and municipal elections here. In some of the island communities, Democrats do not even appear on the general election ballot.
When Judith Davies-Dunhour unseated long-term Mayor Suzanne Walters in 2016, the contest was in the Republican primary. There were no Democrat challengers.
One of the few Democratic municipalities in the county for years was Middle Township. Before Daniel Lockwood won a seat on Middle Township Committee in 2009, Democrats controlled all three seats for over 25 years.
The one exception was Michael Voll, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 1997 after having been elected as a Democrat. He left office in 1999, without running for re-election, with his new party affiliation.
Voll resurfaced as an independent in 2010, and lost his bid to unseat committee incumbent Susan Atkinson Delanzo, a Democrat.
From that small foothold in 2009 - Lockwood’s win on his second try for a committee seat - the Republican Party gained all three committee seats.
James Norris, a political newcomer, who ran successfully for Middle Township School Board two years ago, defeated Michael Clark, a Democrat, who had served on committee for six years, three of them as mayor. Clark won his seat on committee, with 55% of the vote in 2013, and was re-elected in a three-way race in 2016, with 52% of the vote.
Democratic Party fortunes have waned in a municipality where it was an almost unprecedented event for Republican Lockwood to win a decade ago.
With its three-member governing body, Middle Township sees a committee election each year, with political control of the committee often at stake. In the last 11 elections since Lockwood won in 2009, Republican candidates have won seven times compared to four wins for Democrats. This is a strong departure from the pre-2009 pattern in the county.
2019 Win for Republicans
Norris, a millennial, was the youngest member of the school board and brings that youth with him to the governing body.
The campaign was one in which Clark ran on his record as a committee member and mayor. He saw his terms as mayor as ones in which the municipality moved forward in new ways on economic development.
When Clark won his second term in 2016, he was part of a presidential election cycle and may have benefited from the turnout, which topped 60% that year. He beat Lockwood, who was attempting to regain his seat on committee, which he lost by 100 votes in a 2015 contest with Democrat Jeffrey DeVico.
Clark won in 2016, with 52% of the vote, winning 10 of the 18 voting districts in the municipality in an election in which Republican Donald Trump carried the municipality, with 59% of the vote.
In 2019, an off-year election, Clark lost, with 48% of the vote, carrying four of the 18 districts, and was hurt by low turnout in a Democratic stronghold like District 8 - Whitesboro. District 8 had the lowest turnout, 23%, of all the township districts, meaning the almost 80% of the vote that went to Clark was diluted by significantly smaller numbers of voters. In 2016, District 8 gave Clark 301 votes compared to 173 in 2019.
Clark was hurt late in the campaign by a controversy over a campaign mailer that appeared to attack the integrity of Mayor Timothy Donohue. In the end, Democrats could not build the necessary coalition with independents to maintain their one remaining seat on the governing body. Norris received 215 more votes than Clark, while winning 14 of 18 districts.
In a county in which Democrats are outnumbered by registered Republicans, the pathway for Democratic candidates must include winning a significant number of independent voters.
In 2009, Lockwood was elected by less than a majority of the votes. In a three-way race, he gained 46% of the total, winning five districts.
Republicans did not have a candidate in 2010, when Voll, whose last party allegiance was Republican, ran as an independent. Democrat Delanzo won, with 54% of the vote, leaving Lockwood the only Republican on committee.
It was Donohue’s election in 2011 which changed control of the governing body. Donohue, whose brother was chair of the county Republican organization at the time, ran in a three-way race and, like Lockwood two years earlier, won election, with less than a majority of the votes, 45%. Donohue carried 11 of 18 districts in an off-year election that saw county-wide turnout at 37%.
Two Republicans were on the governing body, with Lockwood selected as mayor. The fact that neither had secured 50% of the vote in their first electoral wins did not change the power distribution on the body.
The committee moved to implement budget changes, working toward a series of years in which municipal property owners saw no increase in the municipal tax rate. The one exception was the 2013 budget, which was skewed by a recent township-wide reassessment.
Lockwood won re-election in 2012, with 51% of the vote, and the top vote total in 11 districts.
Clark, a newcomer to township politics, won a seat on committee in 2013, finishing with 55% of the vote, and winning 13 of the 18 districts. Yet, Republican control of the governing body was again secured, when Donohue won re-election the next year, with 59% of the vote, and losing two districts, 8 and 17, which consistently voted Democratic in every one of the 11 elections since 2009.
Democrats returned to control when DeVico denied Lockwood re-election in a contest that saw less than one in three eligible county voters go to the polls. Clark won re-election the following year, and the governing body saw three years of Democratic control, along with its first tax increases in three years.
Clark was selected by the majority as mayor for the three years of Democratic control. He and DeVico hired Elizabeth Terenik, a professional planner, as business administrator, angering Donohue in their removal of Constance Mahon.
With Terenik as administrator, the municipality launched a series of efforts to use state redevelopment and rehabilitation laws to spur economic development and add ratables to the tax rolls. Those efforts continue with Terenik gone, a casualty of another change in party control of committee after DeVico’s defeat in 2018.
Clark also pointed to his leadership in employee benefits contracts, which he argued saved the municipality significant expense. He was never able to articulate that argument in ways that countered the contrary claims by Republicans.
Three straight election wins from 2017 to 2019 gave Republicans control again, leading to changes in the township administrator and solicitor. Donohue is mayor, and the Republicans know they have at least two years before they could possibly face an election that would change control of the governing body.
Many issues face committee, including aging infrastructure that will require significant capital investment, a need for economic development of designated blighted commercial areas, providing efficient services to 20% of the county’s population, with 6% of the tax base, dealing with an opioid crisis that remains serious, and a need to maintain tax rates at levels that allow the community to prosper.
For the Republicans, during the 10-year span from 2009 to 2019, one of the most salient issues was the municipal tax rate. Donohue first ran for committee with a promise of a zero tax increase. Once Republican control of the governing body was established, that promise was kept over successive years.
Democrats argued that the zero tax increase posture was detrimental to the long-term health of the municipality, and that modest increases were necessary to provide appropriate services, compensate employees at levels that retained them, and allowed for investment in long-term goals. During two of the years of Democratic control, the municipality saw increases that totaled more than 7%.
Countering the Democratic argument, Republicans asserted that better management, creative approaches to organization, and appropriate fiscal discipline can achieve moderation in the tax rate, with increases in taxes or fees seen as a last, rather than first, resort.
District by district results over 11 elections suggest that the Republican message is strongest in specific areas of the municipality. Eleven of the 18 districts have given Republicans the majority of their votes in seven or more of the 11 elections since 2009. Two districts have been as loyal to Democrats. The remaining five districts have less consistently voted for one party over the other.
The 2019 elections were not kind to Democrats in Cape May County and First Legislative District. The Democrats have not found a message that allows them to build the necessary coalition with independent voters, without which they can't win office. During the campaigns across the 2019 election period, both political parties referenced a need to ameliorate the property tax burden.
In Middle Township, voters appeared more inclined to trust a Republican governing body with that task.
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