LESSONS FROM NEW JERSEY’S PRIMARIES

by David P. Rebovich Will New Jersey’s conservatives decide to campaign for Tom Kean, Jr.? Or, will they help elect Bob Menendez, Jr. to a full term in the U.S. Senate by withholding their support for the moderate Republican? Will Todd Caliguire be able to give incumbent Democrat Dennis McNerney a run for his money in the Bergen County Executive’s race? Or, will this Republican’s self-professed conservatism prevent him form attracting Bergen County’s all important unaffiliated voters? After being blown out in the 13th district Democratic congressional primary, does Joe Vas have a future in his party? Or, has his anti-establishment campaign put him on the outs with his party for the foreseeable future? New Jersey’s primary elections last Tuesday may have be marked by small turnouts. But they did raise some big questions about both parties and the prospects of their candidates in the general election this fall. Caution should be exercised when generalizing about primaries, especially those in which few folks vote. Of course, this didn’t stop campaign managers and partisans from trying to put the most positive spin on the results and what they mean for their candidates or causes. One of the self-proclaimed winners on Tuesday was John Ginty, the conservative who challenged Kean in the Republican Senate primary. A late entry into the race, the businessman from Bergen County ran as a “real Republican” against an opponent who Ginty’s supporters described as pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, anti-gun and for open borders. On a shoestring budget of $25,000, Ginty ran a bold, punchy radio ad and claimed that Washington needs more principled Republicans to clean up the ethically impaired federal government, end deficit spending, and abolish abortion. Over 42,000 Republicans voted for the little-known Ginty, if not to send a message to Washington which, after all, is controlled by some pretty conservative Republicans, then to tell Tom Kean, Jr. that they don’t agree with his moderate views. Kean himself received over 127,000 votes, giving him a 76-24 percent win. That’s a solid victory. But, will Ginty’s supporters now fall in line behind Kean, or will they decide to sit out the Senate election this November? Sitting out, or casting another message vote by supporting the independent, pro-life U.S. Senate candidate, Leonard Smith of Camden County, will enable staunchly pro-lifers to maintain their principles. However, if conservatives do not vote for Kean, then Menendez will almost certainly be elected to a full-term. How would this possibly serve the pro-life or the Republican causes? Wouldn’t Ginty’s supporters be well-advised to ask Kean, who is not likely to change his views on social issues, the following questions. If elected, will you support President Bush’s nominations to the federal courts? Will you support tax cuts and deficit reduction? If Kean answers yes to both of these questions, it would make a lot of sense for conservatives to vote for him and help the conservative-led Republicans in the U.S. Senate keep their majority. Unless, of course, their main goal is to purge the state GOP of pro-choice politicians, even if this means losing power in Washington, the chance of obtaining it in Trenton, and the opportunity to achieve other important policy objectives. If Ginty deserves credit for getting over forty thousand votes, what does one say about Democratic James D. Kelly, Jr.? A candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year when he received 19,000 votes on Tuesday Kelly got a very respectable 29,000 votes without spending more than pocket change. Some wags have dismissed Kelly’s showing, saying that anti-establishment candidates always garner a certain percentage of the vote. But Kelly lives in a group home for folks with mental disorders, did not mount much of a campaign, and still garnered 15 percent of the vote against a national political figure in Menendez. The Senator’s camp may want to find out why thousands of Democrats in the party strongholds of Hudson, Essex, Camden and Middlesex counties did not vote the party line. What was the message these voters were sending? Conservative Republicans are also celebrating in Bergen County where Todd Caliguire beat moderate Kathy Donovan for the GOP’s nomination for county executive. In addition, it looks like Guy Talarico, another conservative, will remain the county GOP chair. After a brutal race in which Donovan outspent her opponent, some Caliguire supporters have warned moderate Republican legislators in Bergen County that they would be targeted next. For his part, Caliguire called for party unity, something he will need to be competitive this fall against a well-funded Democratic incumbent While flexing political muscles is certainly allowed after winning an election, the conservative Republicans in Bergen have to be careful not to hurt themselves in the process. After all, Caliguire beat Donovan, 12,200 votes to 11,600 votes, a close race by any standard. Turnout among registered Republicans was 24 percent, high for the state on Tuesday but not so high given the hotly contested county executive race. In the meantime, the conservative Ginty, a Bergen County resident, got only 5,052 votes in the county while the moderate Kean received 16,505. As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that the party line that included Kean helped Caliguire carry the day as much as any ideological considerations. And if Bergen County conservatives like Talarico, Ginty and Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan do not publicly support Kean or stop any threats against moderate Republican legislators, don’t be surprised if Donovan’s supporters and other moderate rank and file Republicans shy away from voting for Caliguire this November. If he loses by a landslide to McNerney, the conservatives in Bergen County will need to reconsider how popular they or their causes really are. Speaking of low turnout in a fiercely fought campaign, how about the Albio SIres-Joe Vas battle for the Democratic Party’s 13th district congressional nomination? In the end, this wasn’t a contest at all. Sires, endorsed by most of the key Democrats in the district and north Jersey, crushed Vas, 23,000 to 9,000. Vas, the Perth Amboy mayor and 19th district assemblyman, said he spent some $800,000 on the primary, which comes out to about $90 a vote. That’s dreadful. Sires reportedly went through over $1 million, making this an extraordinarily expensive primary. Yes, in this heavily Democratic district the primary is for all intents and purposes the general election. But party leaders were angry that Vas’s long-shot campaign required raising so money from the party’s donor base that could have gone to other general election campaigns. What really infuriated Democratic leaders was Vas’s campaign message. He characterized Sires as the candidate of party bosses. The former Speaker of the General Assembly was endorsed by, among others, Gov. Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard Codey, and most Democratic legislators and local officials in the 13th district outside of Middlesex County. At a time when the post-McGreevey Democrats are trying to move beyond the image of a boss-dominated party, here was Vas reviving that image for his own purposes. Does the Perth Amboy mayor have a future in the Democratic Party? State party chair Joe Cryan suggested that Vas is on probation and that his future depends on his performance as a mayor and assemblyman. Well, a few days after the primary Perth Amboyans learned that their local property taxes would increase by $800 due to a budget boondoggle by local officials. Smart money says that the Mayor and Assemblyman should pledge support for Sires, sign on to help Sen. Menendez turn out the vote in Middlesex County, and apologize to party leaders, fellow legislators, and Governor Corzine. How he explains the tax hike to Perth Amboyans is another matter entirely. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine, and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political developments.

LESSONS FROM NEW JERSEY’S PRIMARIES