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GOP sees a chance to win S. Jersey seats

Rick DeMichele Jr., chairman of the Camden County Republican Committee, was stunned when he saw this year's list of freeholder candidates.

Rick DeMichele Jr., chairman of the Camden County Republican Committee, was stunned when he saw this year's list of freeholder candidates.

Eight Republicans had signed up for the June 8 primary, seeking two seats on a board populated exclusively by Democrats since the early 1990s.

"Five of them never even contacted me," he said. "Most years I have to go out and actively recruit people just to get in the primary. This year there's an abundance."

With Gov. Christie's win over a Democratic incumbent and antiestablishment sentiment across the nation, many South Jersey Republicans believe this is their best chance in decades to win local political jobs in places long controlled by Democrats.

But as they seek to make gains, local Republicans are far from unified. Long-simmering feuds divide party leaders; in some cases, rookie candidates are questioning the motives of more-established opponents. And the recent momentum of the tea party movement has candidates challenging one another's small-government credentials.

"There's a group of people out there who feel now is the time we have a chance. The Democrats have their back up against the wall," said Bill Fey, chairman of the Gloucester County Republican Committee. "And everyone wants to get in on it."

Unlike in Burlington County, where the GOP is an established force, Republicans are the minority in Gloucester and Camden Counties and face a considerable disadvantage in November. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 138,538 to 42,973 in Camden County and 70,485 to 35,584 in Gloucester County.

But Republican leaders point to a series of small municipal wins in recent years, which they believe to be nipping at the Democratic power base established by George Norcross III, the unofficial leader of South Jersey Democrats.

Though there have been GOP successes, divisiveness has proved costly as well, notably in last year's race for Township Council in Democratic-controlled Cherry Hill. With four open council seats and Mayor Bernie Platt likely nearing the end of his long political career, there seemed a good chance Republicans would win a seat or two.

But from the moment the campaign started, there was tension over funding. In the end, the Democrats took all four seats.

Phil Guerrieri, who led the slate of Republican candidates, butted up against the county Republican committee, specifically treasurer and Cherry Hill chairman Richard Ambrosino Jr.

According to Ambrosino, Guerrieri was unwilling to participate in fund-raising for the campaign, expecting the county organization to fork over money. Guerrieri contends that Ambrosino was disinterested in the campaign from the start, unwilling to allocate the funding the campaign needed.

Now the two sides have split, with Guerrieri and his supporters walking away and hoping to take control of the county party in the primary. They are making it a question of Republican morality, painting Ambrosino as emblematic of what's wrong with New Jersey government because of his position as a managing partner in a Trenton lobbying firm.

That firm, 1868 Public Affairs, does work for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which Christie has criticized for its high salaries and large lobbying budget, now done away with under a new law prohibiting state agencies from hiring lobbyists.

"Ambrosino is a lobbyist trying to convince the governor not to be so hard on them," Guerrieri said. "This is exactly the polar opposite of what a Republican is supposed to be about."

Ambrosino said he did public-relations work, not lobbying work, for the agency.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, has been watching scenarios like these unfold for years.

"It is pretty common to have challenges to the party establishment. That happens all the time," he said. "Where it becomes interesting is when those races become really competitive. In Burlington and Ocean Counties, the Republican Party organizations are very strong. They might get challenged, but nobody questions they'll fight that back handily."

But party organizations have struggled in Camden and Gloucester Counties, where the Republicans' past inability to present a formidable opposition to a well-oiled Democratic organization has led to infighting and frequent power shifts within the party.

Fey, the Gloucester chairman, took control of the county party last year in what he described as a coup.

The uncertain atmosphere is attracting outsiders to the primary, largely in the form of candidates espousing the principles of the growing tea party movement.

They are propelled by the candidacy of Justin Murphy, who is running for Congress in the Third District Republican primary against former Eagle Jon Runyan. Though Runyan has the endorsement of the Republican Party, Murphy is backed by tea party activists.

Joe Hughes, a 75-year-old retiree from Waterford Township, said he was running for Camden County freeholder independent of the county Republican Party because he didn't feel it represented his small-government principles, formed through his membership in the John Birch Society and attendance at tea party gatherings.

"It seems like the [Camden County Republican Committee], they're under the control of the media," he said. "I don't know if they're listening to us. And there's a lot of frustration."