FLEMINGTON – Fighting criticism that he’s operating behind the scenes to weaken the chances of two home county candidates in order to protect state Sen. Marcia Karrow (R-Raritan Twp.), Hunterdon County GOP Chairman Henry Kuhl says he simply wants to keep the balance struck between those two counties that contribute to the 23rd Legislative District.
To that end he told Hunterdon County freeholders Matt Holt and Erik Peterson Friday that regardless of who wins the special convention on Feb 21st, he agreed with Warren County GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt to give a third Assembly candidate, Warren County Freeholder John DiMaio, the organization line in the June Republican Primary.
“The premise is to preserve bi-county representation, if possible,” affirmed Steinhardt.
But the move by the two GOP chairmen has generated some blowback as less than two weeks before the convention, DiMaio, Holt and Peterson vie for the Assembly seat Karrow officially vacated today to claim the Senate seat in the 23rd District with both Kuhl and Steinhart by her side in the Senate chamber.
Unlike Holt and Peterson, who reside in Hunterdon, DiMaio comes from the less populous of the two counties – Warren, which also happens to be the home county of Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R-Washington Twp.).
A fierce social conservative, Doherty lost to Karrow at a special convention on Jan. 24th , and now swears to beat her in the GOP primary by running a man-up anti-establishment campaign. To do that, he must give up his Assembly seat with a formal declaration by April 15th, creating yet another opening.
Kuhl knows Doherty’s running for the senate, trying to gain traction onthe outside of the organization, and the chair wants to protect the turf Karrow already secured.
By agreeing with Steinhardt to give the Hunterdon line to the Warren-based DiMaio, the GOP chairman from Hunterdon effectively minimizes the Warren-based Doherty, while simultaneously hurling either (or both, in the event that DiMaio wins the special convention) of the Hunterdon County-based candidates under the bus, according to Kuhl critics.
Simply put, by assuring a Warren County candidate a place on the line, Kuhl would give Warren voters a comfort zone with the primary candidacy of top ticket candidate Karrow – who’s from Hunterdon – and improve the organization’s chances of finally turning out Doherty.
But he would also deny an organization slot to the Hunterdon County loser who tries to run for Doherty’s vacated Assembly seat come June, and that’s infuriated the chairman’s detractors.
Today in an interview with PolitickerNJ.com, Kuhl stood by his decision regarding DiMaio, waving aside the intrigue elements involving Doherty, and focusing on Holt and Peterson.
“It’s understandable that both would like an Assembly seat,” said the chairman. “I can sympathize with that.
“But I also have to look at the situation district-wide,” he added. “If we look at the map, it is probably anticipated there will be a second ballot at the convention, and on that ballot there will probably be one Hunterdon candidate and one Warren candidate. No one has enough votes to win the election on the first ballot. It will go to a second ballot in my expert opinion, and I have to be realistic. I have to be realistic to those votes that Warren County gives to its candidate. There are not enough votes for both of the Republicans from Hunterdon to win.”
Former state Sen. Bill Schluter, an ally of Holt’s, said he believes Kuhl’s agreement with Steinhardt is unfair to both Holt and Peterson, and questions the chairman’s basic assumptions about DiMaio’s candidacy.
“What if John DiMaio is eliminated on the first ballot and it’s a battle between Holt and Peterson at the convention?” wondered Schluter. At the convention, a candidate has to receive 50% plus 1 to avoid a second ballot. Why, Schluter asks, should the Hunterdon County chairman be lined up behind a Warren candidate in advance of the convention outcome?
Again invoking balance and his own ethics in making it clear to both men from Hunterdon what he intends, Kuhl defended himself.
“I explained to Peterson and Holt that this was how it is,” he said, emphasizing that he wants to be very clear that he has not called any county committee members to tell them to vote for DiMaio, or anyone else for that matter, at the special convention.
“I have not and will not telephone county committee people to ask them to support any candidate,” Kuhl said.
As for a grand design initiated by Kuhl to protect Karrow by blocking out Doherty with DiMaio, Steinhardt said, “I don’t see it that way. My position is we did everything we can to support Michael (Doherty) going into the convention, and now we will do everything we can to have a representative from Warren. I would have liked to have a senator from Warren, but Karrow won.”