State Sen. Joe Pennacchio never had the enthusiastic support of most party leaders for his U.S. Senate candidacy. But just as it seemed like they had no option other than to coalesce around him instead of rival candidate Murray Sabrin, the latest turn in the campaign has caused several leaders to make one last push for a Senate candidate.
The reemergence of Pennacchio’s controversial 1991 booklet yesterday as a campaign issue has worried the party leaders who were already reluctant to get on board with Pennacchio, and they have renewed their efforts to find an alternate candidate. Although the existence of the book was known to many party leaders, many had not read it until Sabrin released it yesterday. Some fear that incumbent Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg will have a field day with the material, leading to a Lautenberg landslide that could spell trouble for their down-ballot candidates.
“We’re still fishing, we just haven’t gotten a fish,” said one Republican official who wished to remain anonymous. “We’ve got a lot of bait in the water.”
It’s a valid concern, according to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
“This is how Democrats win landslide elections in New Jersey — by having the ability to paint the Republicans as ideologically out of touch with the state,” said Murray, who noted two statewide races in which Democrats were able to successfully portray their opponents as ideologues: Democrat Jim Florio did against Republican Jim Courter in 1989, as did Democrat Jim McGreevey against Republican Brett Schundler in 2001.
“They easily painted the Republican as being out of step with the mainstream of New Jersey, and with that all other issues went into the background,” added Murray.
Although the filing deadline for U.S. Senate candidates is less than three weeks away, Republicans still have a chance to bump Pennacchio. The infrastructure from the Anne Evans Estabrook campaign, which was discontinued earlier this month, has not yet been abandoned. It remains standing in case a suitable candidate jumps into the race.
Burlington County, which had given former candidate Estabrook the county line, was set to deliver it to Pennacchio. But the distribution of “A Nationalist Agenda” yesterday has raised concerns among members of the party there, who have scheduled a new screening committee meeting to evaluate Pennacchio and Sabrin once more.
“We have some questions for Joe (Pennacchio) that need to be addressed before we move forward,” said Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton, who has not yet read the book but said some of the points raised in the summaries he’s read do concern him.
Some party leaders have a favorite in state Sen. Diane Allen, who is moderate, pro-choice and consistently wins reelection in a heavily Democratic legislative district. Although a person close to Allen told PolitickerNJ.com earlier today that her recent bout with pneumonia had left her too sick to run, a different Republican official said that he talked to her on the phone today and that she was thrilled at the prospect, insisting not to count her out just yet.
Allen, however, is still seriously ill and, if she does decide to run, will have to file by the deadline and recover quickly enough to start campaigning.
Another name that has recently been raised is Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who in November easily held off what was intended to be a serious Democratic challenge to his incumbency by Sheriff Jim McGettigan.
Levinson had been contacted by several party leaders about running even before Estabrook dropped out, he said, but has been reluctant to enter the race.
“If I could run a campaign like Warren Harding from my front porch it would be a different story. But it would be extremely time consuming, and I would be neglecting my duties as County Executive.”
The papers Pennacchio wrote in the early 1990s do raise questions, Levinson said, but added, “I believe that the Pennacchio of 2008 is a far better candidate than the Pennacchio of 1991.”
But Levinson, flattered by the attention, wouldn’t completely rule out a run either.
“I have gotten some phone calls from people that I like and respect, and if you say no immediately people stop asking,” he said.
One Republican leader who wished to remain anonymous said that he plans to discuss a potential run with a potential candidate today, although he would not name that person.
Cape May County Republican chairman David Von Savage met with his organization on Friday and decided not to endorse a Senate candidate yet, preferring to leave their options open.
“The republican U.S. Senate primary has not quite degenerated to the base level of the Democratic presidential primary,” said Von Savage. “Given the April 7th filing deadline, New Jersey Republicans still have a whole lot more latitude to choose an alternative to candidates Pennacchio or Sabrin.”
Another Republican leader suggested that it’s too late to run anyone against Pennacchio. Instead, the party would allow him to win the nomination, then sit him down and try to convince him to drop out of the race in favor of another challenger, like state Senators Joe Kyrillos, Kip Bateman or Bill Baroni – similar to the way Democrats replaced Robert Toricelli with Lautenberg in 2002.
Pennacchio, however, said that he would never give in, and added that he had not received any negative feedback regarding his old writings.
“As a matter of fact, I had a couple of calls from people who wanted to know why it’s an issue, why it’s going on,” he said.
Pennacchio noted that he published the book for his Congressional campaign against incumbent Republican Dean Gallo in 1994, and that he has never tried to hide it or downplay it. While he no longer supports some of the ideas he outlined in it, he said that many were intended to bring people together and some demonstrated a remarkable foresight.
The race has changed significantly in at least one way, however. When Estabrook was still a candidate, Pennacchio and Sabrin largely focused on criticizing her, leaving each other unscathed. Now the gloves have come off, and Sabrin is calling for Pennacchio to drop out and even resign his state Senate seat.
“You disagree with somebody and right away you call for his resignation?” asked Pennacchio. “On the senate floor, say he’s having a disagreement with a Senator from Idaho. What’s he going to do, call him a fascist and tell him to resign?”
Pennacchio went on to call Sabrin a “perennial candidate” from the “fringe” who has done nothing to build the party, instead emerging every few years to “point his finger.”
Sabrin spokesman George Ajjan responded by touting his candidate’s recent victory at the Gloucester County Republican convention.
“If Murray’s a fringe candidate, then that doesn’t say much for Joe, since he was beat
en soundly at a debate at the Gloucester County convention last Saturday.”
Perhaps Pennacchio’s strongest ally in the Republican leadership is John Sette, the Republican Chairman for his home county of Morris – an important Republican bastion. Sette insisted that the party leaders who are still looking for another candidate are the same ones who have been steadfast against Pennacchio’s campaign all along.
“I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but they don’t want to let the process play out. They’re just so controlling that I guess they’re afraid if they’re going to lose some power,” he said. “The people are in control, and it’s the decision of the electorate.”