CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — County Democrats, for the second year in a row and third time in the past five years, do not have any candidates to run for county office.
Party leaders from the county’s 16 municipalities met Wednesday night at the Old Court House to try to fill a slate for the November elections. Party Chairman Jim Pickering had the task of finding somebody to run for two seats on the Board of Chosen Freeholders as well as the Cape May County sheriff position.
The Republican Party has already chosen the incumbents — Freeholders Will Morey and Kristine Gabor and Sheriff Gary Schaffer — to run.
“Is there anybody here showing an interest to run for these seats?” Pickering asked the 50 or so Democrats in the room. “Seeing none, I’ll move past that part of the agenda.”
Later in the meeting there was some good news for the party, as Bill Hughes was endorsed to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Frank LoBiondo,R-2nd, and several municipal leaders gave reports on reviving Democratic clubs in their towns, including Ocean City and the Wildwoods. Grass-roots support for candidates starts in such clubs.
The Republicans control all five seats on the freeholder board and the sheriff, surrogate and county clerk positions. This also gives the party control of county jobs.
Cape May County has 26,719 registered Republican voters, compared with 13,667 Democrats. There are 27,463 voters who are registered but not affiliated with either party.
Of the seven county towns with partisan elections, the Democrats only control one governing body, in Dennis Township. Both Middle Township, the largest town geographically, and Lower Township, the largest by population, were traditionally in Democrat hands but in recent years have been controlled by Republicans or independents. The party has many more openings on committee seats than the Republicans have and in some cases does not even have municipal leaders in the towns.
“We’re in trouble,” said Mary Langan, the de facto municipal leader in Lower Township.
The blue-collar township was controlled by “Roosevelt Democrats” just a few years ago, and now it has no representative on the five-member council and no candidates to run for three seats in November.
“We’ve needed a leader for a long time. Lower Township should be a Democratic stronghold. It used to be,” Langan said.
Finances also appear to be an issue. County Republican Chairman Mike Donohue said the party has already raised more than $50,000 toward the election. The Democrats have $919 in in the bank.
Pickering stressed the positives. A race in Middle Township in November between Republican Mayor Tim Donohue and challenger Sam Kelly could give the party a 2-1 majority there. The Dennis Township race for two seats held by Republicans could boost their current 3-2 majority to 4-1 or 5-0.
There is also debate on how the lack of candidates can affect a Democrat running for higher office.
“It’s always good to have candidates to run with. In Cape May County, it’s a unique situation,” said Hughes, who is running in a congressional district with seven other counties.
Donohue, however, argues it only helps if the candidates are strong.
“Having weak candidates below you will hurt you,” he said.
Jeffrey Sutherland, an Ocean City Democrat who ran for surrogate in 2012, is involved with reviving a club in his city and believes it is key to restoring the party.
“Without clubs, it’s hard. If I’m from Ocean City and want to go to Lower Township (to campaign), I’d call the leader of a club and set up an event,” Sutherland said.
Lower Township once had a vibrant Democratic club, but it has been inactive in recent years.
Pickering and Donohue agree a healthy two-party system that gives choices to the voters is a good thing. Getting there is another matter.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get people involved. Everybody says they want a two-party system, but then they vote for one side,” Lower Township Democrat Mike Kennedy said.
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