Former Republican assembly candidate Robert Villare is not finished.
After coming one point away –1,362 votes — from unseating Democratic incumbent Celeste Riley (D-Bridgeton) in the 3rd District with a bare bones, mostly self-funded campaign, the cardiothoracic surgeon and political novice from Paulsboro is considering running for office again in the near future.
And this time, he might have some support from the party.
The small margin between Villare and Riley caught some observers off guard. Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), an incumbent for eight years compared to Riley’s eight months, ran comfortably ahead of the pack.
Although Republicans cited the district as a potential pick up opportunity early in the election cycle, Assembly Republican Victory (ARV) – the political wing of the Assembly Republicans – publicly withdrew support after Villare and fellow Republican Lee Lucas prevailed in a primary over establishment favorites George Shivery and Art Marchand.
In October, however, ARV did contribute $6,150 to Villare’s campaign. Villare, who loaned his own campaign $57,413, described the support as “too little, too late.”
“All they gave was lip service,” he said, noting that most of the party’s resources were taken up by the District 1 assembly race, where Republicans were forecasted to have a good shot at taking out two Democratic incumbents but did not prevail.
“If they had just given us a few people, some resources and a little bit of funding, there is no question we could have swung the votes… and I would have won,” said Villare.
Creating another obstacle for Villare was Lee Lucas, whose “survival of the fittest” letters to local newspapers made him controversial in Republican circles to begin with, and whose alleged use of a racial slur to a neighbor during a dispute, quoted in a 2006 police report, made him persona-non-grata and forced party leaders to publicly renounce him. Although Villare and Lucas shared their party’s nomination, they ran separate campaigns.
“I had no running mate, actually, so that hurt,” said Villare.
Villare is not sure what position he will seek. He’s interested in running for congress, but said there is not enough time to prepare a campaign against U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights). In 2011, he might either try again for assembly or run for state senate – a match that would pit him directly against the second most powerful elected official in the state: incoming Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford).
Gloucester County GOP Chairman Bill Fey, despite having a rocky start with Villare, said that the doctor “has a future in the party as an elected official, absolutely.”
“I guess it was my job at some point to curb his expectations on a county level, because he expected so much in support and ground forces, and quite frankly I inherited a party that was in complete disarray and without funds,” said Fey, who became chairman one week after Villare won the primary (the primary contest was tied in with the Gloucester County GOP leadership fight, with Fey and Villare on opposite sides).
Republican State Committee spokesman Kevin Roberts defended the party’s resource allocation, noting the tough economic climate in which spending on assembly races was down 28% across the board and the fact that the state party opened at least one headquarters in each of the state’s 21 counties, where volunteers made calls on behalf of candidates up and down the ticket.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an assembly candidate, Democrat or Republican, who doesn’t wish they had more resources this cycle,” said Roberts. “We don’t think it’s an indictment of the leadership or anyone along those lines where they felt they had to allocate those limited resources.”
In 2011, Republicans will lose some of the advantages in the district they had this year. Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie, for one, will not be on the ticket. Christie carried the county, which may have helped Villare down-ballot. Villare actually beat Riley in Gloucester County, but lost by a wider margin in her native Cumberland County.
And having seen a Republican come so close – especially with Sweeney seeking re-election this time – Democrats are not likely to take it for granted.
Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison, however, thinks that the 3rd District could indeed be a battleground in 2011, especially with a GOP governor in office – a boon to the party’s fundraising.
“Republicans right now are assessing seats throughout the state. Particularly the attractiveness of this is a kind of in-your-face to Steve Sweeney,” said Harrison. “and Republican coffers will probably be better stocked than at any point since Christie Whitman was in office.”
Villare is not the only Republican candidate looking for a repeat, however. In a phone interview, Lucas told PolitickerNJ.com that he plans to run for office again as well, starting with seeking the party’s nomination against U.S. Rep. Andrews in 2010.
“I’m running for congress, running for assembly. I’m running for something every year. I’ll never stop,” said Lucas, who denied the police report’s quote of his racial slur but said that it did not hurt his candidacy. Lucas finished about 3,200 votes behind Villare.
“I only spent $300 – I bought 50 signs – and look how good I did,” he said.