Can the GOP Prevail?

Despite the usual baggage, New Jersey’s Republicans see signs of hope for this year’s elections.


Posted March 17, 2009

Republicans in New Jersey seem to have some key things going for them this year. The weak economy makes their cries for fiscal conservatism sound attractive.

The incumbent Democratic governor’s popularity is waning. And for the first time in several elections, the GOP may have a gubernatorial candidate with statewide name recognition and a record of accomplishment. It’s a recipe for success. Now, if only they could find enough people in the Garden State willing to vote Republican.

It’s a problem the party has faced for decades. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans—and independent voters outnumber both—the GOP needs to win over everyone it can. That means getting a large slice of those 2.28 million unaffiliated voters who, most believe, are pro-choice and moderate in their social views.

This year, the Republicans need the independents more than ever, given the thousands of Democrats who enthusiastically registered last year to vote for Barack Obama. As of September 2008, New Jersey had about 1.72 million registered Democrats, compared to 1.04 million Republicans.

“We need to reach out as a party to voters that have not traditionally been Republican,” says state Senator Bill Baroni, who in 2007 won his legislative seat in a largely Democratic district. “We need to reach out to voters who carry union cards, or belong to an environmental federation, to gay and lesbian families, and to those who speak Spanish as their first language. We can’t win an election without that kind of coalition.” For the last eight years, the Republicans have failed to win over these groups. But with the right candidate—say, a moderate like former U.S. attorney Christopher Christie—they believe this may be their year.

“Republicans need to run someone who can appeal to the middle-of-the-road voter, and that’s one of the things that Christie is showing he can do,” says Ingrid Reed, a policy analyst at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “And he has the enthusiastic support of the party. You just didn’t have that in previous campaigns. This is the best shot they’ve had for a while.”

It doesn’t hurt that, in a bad economy, the incumbent often struggles as voters fail to differentiate between what the administration inherited and what it caused. With that in mind, Republicans hope voters of all stripes—many of whom face losing their homes, their jobs, and their pensions—will look to them for change.

“Jon Corzine wasn’t very popular to begin with, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be popular now, given the economy,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s a lousy time to be governor.”

Indeed, an early Quinnipiac University poll showed Christie leading Corzine 44 percent to 38 percent. Even Democrats admit 2009 will be challenging.

“This year, we’re saying no to a lot of people,” says one Democratic legislator. “That’s all we’re doing is saying no.”

Despite all this, history tells us the Republicans face an uphill battle. Consider the case of Jim Florio, a Democrat who imposed unpopular tax hikes as governor, but lost by only about 26,000 votes—out of 2.5 million cast—in his 1993 race against the state’s last Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman.

“It’s a difficult election for the Republicans despite the Democrats having trouble in government. And I certainly don’t think they have much of a chance without Christie as their candidate,” says Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor at the Eagleton Institute. “But if Christie is their candidate, the betting odds will be 50/50, and those are good odds for the Republicans in New Jersey.”

It’s not just the governor’s office that Republicans want back. The party’s legislative leadership is working hard to regain a majority in the Assembly, where every seat is up for a vote in November. Assembly Republican leader Alex DeCroce and Senate minority leader Tom Kean Jr. have been driving all around the state in a recruitment effort, to assure the party is running viable Assembly candidates in every district.

While that might seem like an obvious strategy, political leaders in both parties typically have a hard time finding candidates for districts that are difficult to win. In the past, for instance, Republican leaders have had a hard time recruiting standard-bearers to run in the heavily Democratic 20th District, which covers Elizabeth, Union, Roselle, and Kenilworth.

“It’s not easy to get someone to run in a historically Democratic district,” says Phil Morin, chairman of the Republican committee of Union County.

GOP leaders believe their best shots at Assembly gains are in districts 36 and 38 in North Jersey, district 14 in Central Jersey, and districts 1 and 3 in South Jersey. Currently, there are 48 Democrats in the Assembly and 33 Republicans. In the state Senate, Democrats have a 23-17 edge.

Some hold up Baroni’s 2007 win in the 14th district as a shining example of what Republicans need to do. Baroni prevailed in an area with a strong Democratic base— both Assembly seats in the district are still held by Democrats—because he campaigned door-to-door, listening to voters’ concerns. Even when he’s not campaigning, Baroni says he knocks on about 5,000 doors a year.

The GOP shouldn’t write off Democratic strongholds like Newark and Camden, Baroni says. He points out that the senior Tom Kean, a moderate Republican, won those areas—and nearly every other city in the state—when he was re-elected as governor in 1985.

Republicans are also eyeing the youth vote. After seeing how wildly successful the Obama campaign was in energizing younger Americans, Republicans plan to make speeches at colleges, visit political science clubs, and hold mini-symposia throughout the state, to get their message to younger people.

With an appetite for new outreach strategies, seven GOP county chairmen, all under the age of 40, began meeting for monthly dinners about a year and a half ago. They had similar interests and faced similar frustrations with the party leaders, many of whom, they say, are older and set in their ways.

State Senator Kevin O’Toole understands the frustration of the younger party leaders. While he was not in on their monthly meetings, he has not forgotten the scene when he was first elected a county chairman in 1997. At the time, he walked into a room and saw a sea of white men over the age of 65 knocking back Southern Comfort and Jim Beam—and there he was, half Korean, half Irish, and just 33 years old.

“The older generation has to understand things like Twitter and Facebook,” O’Toole says. “President Obama taught us that his greatest growth was in the younger generation. We need to grab them.”

The younger chairs believe they are the very demographic the party needs to attract: 30-something urban professionals with children. But they say a new model is needed to attract such voters. For example, potential voters might be invited to a cocktail mixer to network with other professionals, and then be introduced to the party’s ideas about good government. Under the old model, these same voters would be asked to attend a Republican club meeting to sit around a table and discuss politics.

“The new model is much more social. It’s a different way of reaching a new demographic that no one is talking to right now,” says Richard Zeoli, who was among the young county chairs who were meeting regularly, though he recently stepped down as Sussex County chair to run for freeholder. “I don’t want to be critical of the party elders, but this is a young state, and I think we are the demographic that can really appeal to the demographic we need to reach if we’re going to win in New Jersey.”

But in a party that’s been riddled by divisions between conservatives and moderates, suspicions can run high, and some viewed those meetings of the party’s young leaders as a coup in the making. Tom Wilson, who chairs the state Republican organization, says the concerns have subsided, but they were not specific to New Jersey’s Republican party. There was a similar reaction at the national level when a group of young GOP state chairs began meeting about a year ago to discuss strategy. The party leadership politely asked Wilson and his colleagues to stop meeting and instead devote their energies to the national organization’s annual meetings.

“We all just decided it wasn’t worth pursuing,” Wilson says.

If Republicans are to have any hope of winning, they need to unite their own party. That is never simple: To win over independent voters, the GOP needs to run a candidate who is ideologically moderate. But to win the hearts of many Republicans, the candidate must be conservative.

Typically, the GOP puts forward moderate candidates for statewide office. Inevitably, the run up to a Republican gubernatorial primary is like watching a family air its dirty laundry. So far, Christie—who is running on his record as a corruption-fighting former prosecutor—is facing a field that includes former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham), and Franklin Township mayor Brian D. Levine. The primary is scheduled for June 2.

Lonegan, an outspoken conservative who toes the right-wing line on issues like abortion and immigration, ran an advertisement in February that asked Christie, “Do you still personally contribute money to Planned Parenthood?” (Christie has said little about his positions on social issues.)

Observers say such polarization is partly why Democrats have won sixteen of the last eighteen statewide races. Consider last year’s U.S. Senate race, when Republicans failed to come up with a viable challenger to take on Senator Frank Lautenberg, a seemingly vulnerable 84-year-old incumbent. The conservative wing of the party put forward Joe Pennacchio, a state senator from Morris County. He was all but ignored by party moderates in favor of millionaire real estate developer Anne Evans Estabrook. When she dropped out, the party establishment scrambled for another moderate, whom they found in Andrew Unanue, a former executive from Goya Foods. He eventually dropped out and former congressman Dick Zimmer stepped into the void, but Pennacchio and his fellow conservatives were angry at the way they had been treated.

“When Anne dropped out, the mantra was, ‘Anybody but Joe,’ because [the party leaders] felt he was too conservative,” says one Republican, who requested anonymity. “By the time Zimmer got in, the conservatives said enough was enough and went gung ho for Joe and a house divided.”

“Given the make-up of the state, you can’t have an arch conservative as a candidate,” says George Gilmore, who chairs Ocean County’s Republican organization. “You have to put forth a moderate view.” There’s room in the party for people of opposite views, but the two sides have stopped communicating with one another, says O’Toole.

As recently as 2007, Lonegan paid for mailers, radio spots, and robo-calls attacking fellow Republican Nick Asselta, an assemblyman who was running for the Senate in Atlantic County. Lonegan claimed Asselta abandoned his Republican principles by supporting paid family leave, a measure that Lonegan called anti-taxpayer and anti-business.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen some aggressive primaries where Republicans are fighting amongst ourselves,” O’Toole says. “Pretty soon, you’re not going to have enough Republicans who can fit in a phone booth.”

Ideological divisions are only part of the story. Critics inside and outside the party say the GOP has lost ground over the last several elections because it lacks leadership and a strong message. As one strategist puts it, “I’m not the other guy” is not a reason for people to vote for you. Democrats now have control of the freeholder boards in traditional Republican strongholds like Monmouth and Cumberland counties. They picked up freeholder seats in Burlington and a Senate seat in Cape May County. There’s squabbling among party members in Passaic, Morris, and Ocean counties. And in Hunterdon, there’s an effort to recall the sheriff, a Republican.

“The GOP is in disarray,” says one Democratic strategist.

Particularly damaging is the party’s loss of control of Bergen County, which some consider the Ohio of New Jersey. That is, you don’t win a presidential election without winning Ohio, and you don’t win a statewide race in New Jersey without carrying Bergen County. That’s primarily because there are more than 900,000 people living there—the largest population of any Jersey county.

“It used to be a GOP county, generating big pluralities for the GOP candidates running statewide, and now it’s the opposite,” says Rider’s Dworkin.

Former President George Bush’s unpopularity certainly didn’t help. “I don’t think we can overestimate the damage he did to the GOP brand,” Dworkin says.

O’Toole agrees. He says Republicans need to have a clear, fundamental message of good government, and for the GOP, that means smaller, more efficient government with greater transparency. GOP politicians can’t just be naysayers who spend the off-election years campaigning for the next race. Sometimes it takes a bipartisan spirit to enact reforms.

Republicans lack not just a uniform message, but money, too. They complain that Democrats have found ways to get around the state’s laws against pay-to-play. Not only are Democrats more effective fundraisers, but they have a system for moving money from one county to another and putting it into races where it is most needed, says state GOP leader Wilson.

“Does that happen on my side of the aisle? I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” says Wilson. But he acknowledges the Democrats seem to be more sophisticated about it.

Critics say Wilson wasted too much of the party’s limited resources chasing down the e-mails between Governor Corzine and his ex-girlfriend, labor leader Carla Katz.

Yet there is hope for the GOP. New Jersey voters may be moderate, but Republican strategists say the economy is so bad, residents might even vote for a pro-life candidate in the coming election if he convinced them he could fix the state’s finances.

“I don’t think the ills of the state are going to be solved on the basis of one’s personal view of whether life begins at conception or not,” says Dave Von Savage, Cape May County’s Regular Republican organization chairman. “People at this juncture are focused on keeping their head above water.”

But then Von Savage, one of the party’s more conservative county chairs, has always considered it hogwash that a pro-life candidate can’t win in New Jersey.

“I think that’s a myth perpetuated by a sympathetic media that’s bought into the line that effective leadership is rooted only in a pro-choice candidate,” he says.

Myth or not, the challenges facing Republicans in New Jersey are clear.

Says state Senator O’Toole, “You can’t just throw rocks from the cheap seats and call it a day.”

Copyright 2009 New Jersey Magazine