CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — As area Republicans celebrated while national election results trickle in on television at the Bellevue Tavern on Tuesday night, they took a moment to see freeholder incumbents Gerald R. Thornton and E Marie Hayes pop the cork.
Holding champagne glasses, Thornton and Hayes thanked those in attendance and county voters who led them to an overwhelming victory over their Democratic challengers.
According to unofficial results from the county, Thornton (25,188 votes) and Hayes (24,276) combined to win nearly 60 percent of the vote to retain their seats on the Cape May County Board of Freeholders. Democrats Dan Kurkowski and John Amenhauser drew 16,480 and 16,188 votes, respectively. Results remained unofficial as of Wednesday morning.
“We had a very good night,” Thornton, the board’s director, said in an interview. “Residents here know that our county government runs well.”
Hayes was first elected to the board in 2012.
“What our party does is right. What we’re doing is right. And we have to make sure everybody knows that,” she told the crowd.
Hayes also thanked Thornton, who mentored her during her first term, she said.
Thornton also thanked those in attendance for their support.
“You’re the ones who won the election. Not Gerry Thornton, not Marie Hayes,” Thornton told those in attendance. “We stand here successful because of all of you. Because of the commitment you’ve made not only with your hoard work, but also with your financial report and your help.”
Republicans hold each of the freeholder board’s five seats. Freeholders are elected “at-large” to three-year, staggered terms.
Throughout their campaigns, Kurkowski and Amenhauser widely criticized county spending, saying in an October interview that, per citizen, the county spends twice the average of other counties statewide.
When the two slates sparred last month in a debate presented by the League of Women Voters, Kurkowski and Amenhauser criticized a $37 million jail proposed for the county, as well as a tax rate they say is too high.
On Tuesday, Thornton responded by saying the county’s tax rate is the second-lowest in the state, and that his Democratic opponents didn’t take the county’s millions of summer visitors per year into account when criticizing spending.
He also added that the new jail is necessary, saying the current jail is out of compliance with state law and could be taken over by the federal and state governments.
Amenhauser and Kurkowski were upbeat at the Democratic gathering at the nearby Rio Station, despite defeat.
“We did not win tonight, but it won't be the last time we run,” Kurkowski said at about 10 p.m. Tuesday.
A crowd of more than 100 supporters cheered the candidate's promise.
“I think we made a lot of headway in the county, and I'm proud to be a Democrat in Cape May County.”
Amenhauser echoed his running mate's thoughts. “You got this started,” he said. “It's obvious with the voter turnout that we have things happening. One day, we're going to turn Cape May County blue again.”
Jeff Sutherland, Cape May County GOP chairman, promised the crowd that there would be more Democrats in future elections.
“We're going to build off this,” he said. “This is just the beginning. I pray that these two stay involved, and we will recruit more for the party.”
Sutherland said the party would continue to build, and predicted that it would be bigger and better than ever next year.
According to county clerk Rita Fulginiti, 70,801 people are registered to vote in Cape May County, with 28,098 registered Republican and 15,633 registered Democrat. Speaking before the majority of the results came in, she was unsure of turnout numbers, but she said Tuesday’s turnout was similar to 2008, when 78 percent of registered county voters went to the polls in an election that saw outgoing President Barrack Obama elected to his first term in the White House.
Tuesday marked the first contested election for freeholder since Democrat Walter Deegan unsuccessfully challenged Leonard Desiderio in 2012. Current state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who served two terms on the freeholder board, was the last Democrat elected to the board.
At the national level, Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo looked set Tuesday night to win his 12th term in congress, carrying 59 percent of the vote to Democratic challenger Dave Cole’s 37 percent with most voting locations reporting. The Associated Press called the race for LoBiondo.
In the presidential race, county voters leaned heavily toward Republican candidate Donald Trump, with Trump receiving almost 58 percent of the vote compared to Democrat Hilary Clinton’s 38 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson took 1.8 percent of the votes in Cape May County, while Jill Stein of the Green Party won less than 1 percent.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton conceded the closest presidential race since Republican George W. Bush edged Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
Staff writer David Benson contributed to this report.