The Bergen GOP War

Decades have past since the classic civil wars of Bergen County Republican politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when bitter enemies like State Senators Walter Jones and Pearce Deamer, or Republican County Chairmen like Nelson Gross and Anthony Statile ran full slates in primary campaigns that forced Republicans — from low-level county employees to candidates for statewide office — to take sides in their almost yearly intra-party battles. In recent years, open conventions have allowed more than 1,200 elected GOP County Committee members to award the organization line, avoiding more expensive and divisive primary contests. Now, there are indications that two candidates will face off in a primary for County Executive that is seemingly intertwined with a challenge to the incumbent Republican County Chairman, Guy Talarico. Talarico is backing former Freeholder and gubernatorial candidate Todd Caliguire, who was unopposed for the GOP nomination until last week, when the party’s top vote-getter in recent years, County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, entered the race. Donovan has the backing of Alan Marcus, a Trenton lobbyist who ran the county GOP oganization in the days of the old-time wars, and may form her own line in the primary rather than deal with Talarico and Caliguire at a convention. The lone Republican Freeholder in Bergen, Elizabeth Randall, announced today that she would run with Donovan — even if that means eschewing the organization line. Randall’s would-be running mate, former Wyckoff Board of Education member Robert Yudin, has not said whether he will run on the organization line or seek to join Randall on the Donovan slate. Randall could potentially lose her primary, which would send the GOP ticket into the general election without their only incumbent. Several Bergen Republicans are now wondering whether Caliguire, who finished last in Bergen County in his ’05 run for Governor, will remain in the race against Donovan, a four-term County Clerk and ex-Assemblywoman. Caliguire didn’t bargain for a primary, and a costly battle for his party nomination won’t necessarily help him oust the Democrat, Dennis McNerney, who has the advantage of incumbency and of the Bergen Democratic warchest. If Caliguire does drop out, party insiders predict that another candidate would emerge — perhaps Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, the de facto leader of the state’s conservative Republican wing. Lonegan is not likely to back Donovan. Competing primary slates could force U.S. Senate candidate Thomas Kean and Congressman Scott Garrett will need to decide whether they want to run on the organization line, on the Donovan slate, or on no line at all. Bergen is a must-win county for Kean in a general, and a divided party reduces his chance of building the kind of plurality Kean needs to offset U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s likely margins in Hudson and Essex counties. Indirectly, an anti-organization primary slate is responsible for Caliguire’s own political career. In 1977, the Bergen County Republican Organization endorsed State Senator Raymond Bateman for Governor. Bateman’s main opponent, Assembly Minority Leader Thomas Kean, ran a full line of Freeholder and legislative candidates in Bergen County. While Bateman won Bergen, Kean carried the towns in the old 40th district — causing two incumbent Assemblymen running on the Bateman line two lose the primary to the two Kean-backed candidates, Oakland Councilman Cary Edwards and attorney Walter Kern. When Kean was elected Governor four years later, he picked Edwards to serve as Chief Counsel. In turn, Edwards hired Caliguire to work for him.

The Bergen GOP War