Consultant stirs the pot in 24th district Senate race

The race for State Senate in the 24th district, where Robert Littell is retiring after nearly 40 years in Trenton, has already become the nastiest campaign in the state — and that includes some real contentious intra-party battles in Hudson and Bergen counties. In that contest, seven-term Assemblyman Guy Gregg faces the Littell family candidate, Sussex County Freeholder Steve Oroho. The Littell family — most specifically Virginia Littell, a former Republican State Chairwoman and the Senator’s wife — despise Gregg, who had been prepared to challenge the aging Senator in the Republican primary.

Oroho is running on a ticket with incumbent Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, the Senator’s daughter. In her role as an Oroho surrogate, McHose has created quite a

ruckus in recent days by attacking individuals and organizations that are supporting Gregg — including some who also support her own re-election bid. Baffled Republicans who know McHose say that she is not possibly as doltish as she seems to be coming across as the spokeswoman for her campaign strategist, Bill Winkler.

The constant volley of attacks began early last week, when Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen announced his endorsement of Gregg. Winkler’s strategy was to attack the popular Frelinghuysen as being too liberal, creating the impression that Gregg is liberal too. Winkler, Oroho and McHose have also criticized Gregg supporter Bret Schundler, the conservative former Mayor of Jersey City, who was a Democrat when he was in his twenties, and leveled an unusually harsh attack on New Jersey Right to Life, which endorsed Gregg. There was even a back-handed slap at Gregg’s friend, Congressman Scott Garrett, perhaps one of the most conservative members of Congress, and the National Rifle Association, which also endorsed Gregg this week.

The problem, according to Republicans familiar with the Oroho-McHose campaign, is Winkler. And suddenly, there are some party insiders who suggest that McHose, who has so far avoided a challenge for renomination to her own seat, might suddenly be vulnerable. If that happens, she can probably thank Winkler.

Winkler doesn’t necessarily agree with PoliticsNJ.com’s interpretation of his press releases, specifically a headline that suggests that Schundler was being attacked. “He ran as a Republican, albeit a liberal one ( for State Senate in 1991),” Winkler said. “This is not meant as an attack, just a statement.

“Bret took it wrong when he wrote, ‘the person who commented that I became a Republican only after having sought to run for office as a Democrat is spreading an utter fabrication,'” wrote Winkler. “I am very familiar with Bret’s record and am something of a sympathetic biographer. I have a genuine empathy for him, though we have never been formally introduced.”

Marie Tasy, the Executive Director of New Jersey Right to Life PAC, wrote to McHose: “When individuals switch from the pro-abortion side to the pro-life side, we consider that a victory. It is one of the many goals the pro-life community strives for.”

Winkler says: “That’s fine as far as it goes, just so long as they don’t slip back. Look at Mr. (Mitt) Romney: pro-life, pro-choice, pro-life, what’s next? Does it depend on what he runs for?”

“So far as I’m concerned, Guy Gregg hasn’t offered a real explanation for his conversion,” says Winkler. “I know why Bret Schundler changed. I read the words and they sound convincing. I don’t know why Guy Gregg changed.”

Winkler says he’d like to know why Gregg became pro-life. “Was it an ultrasound?,” Winkler asked. “That is something often cited. Was it a religious conversion? Again, I’ve seen that. And how strong is this “evolution”?”

“We Quakers — yes, I’m a pro-life Quaker — are not natural cynics, but neither are we fools,” said Winkler. “Guy Gregg’s evolution seems to me to have more to do with hanging up his ambitions for statewide office in a blue state, and running for a conservative state senate district.”

Will Winkler’s strategy work?

Bill Pascoe, a Republican consultant who managed Bret Schundler’s campaign for Governor in 2001, says that a “strategy implies, necessarily, a logical thought process that seeks to match the ends sought to the means available.”

“Winkler’s strategy, as it’s being played out, demonstrates no such logical thought process. Hence, it is wrong to refer to it as a strategy.

Pascoe says Winkler’s strategy is wrong for a larger reason.

“Staff, consultants, and operatives should never make themselves the story of a campaign unless doing so serves the campaign’s larger purposes,” Pascoe said. “If, for example, candidate A was well ahead of candidate B, and candidate B launched an attack that campaign A determined was hurting it, it might make sense for campaign manager A to do something that would draw attention away from the attack and toward something else — even himself.”

But in this scenario, Pascoe explains, “for campaign B to launch an attack against frontrunner A, and have as the result of the attack increased attention not on candidate A but instead on candidate/campaign B or — worse yet — its campaign manager, well, that’s just stupid. No campaign purpose is being served.”

Winkler’s just way off the mark here. Rule Number One of message discipline: pick your horse and ride it. Either Gregg is too liberal for the district, or he’s too conservative for the district. He can’t be both, said Pascoe. “Attacking him for the Frelinghuysen endorsement makes the argument that Gregg is too liberal. Attacking him for the Schundler endorsement makes the argument that Gregg is too conservative, no matter how hard Winkler tries to spin that Bret is a liberal. No one who knows anything about New Jersey politics believes Bret is a liberal.”

Pascoe suggests that if there is a strategy, if could be called the “Goldilocks Play” — “this one’s too hot … this one’s too cold. Maybe on the third try we’ll get it right.”

Winkler has also violated Rule Number Two of message discipline, Pascoe explains. “Always attack the guy who’s on the ballot, not the guys who’ve endorsed him. That’s just silly.

Who is this Winkler guy?

Winkler, who specializes in oppposition research, was indicted for his role in the 1994 congressional campaign of Tad Jude in Minnesota. The grand jury found that Winkler “intentionally participated in the preparation or dissemination of political campaign material knowing it is false and is designed or tends to elect, injure, or defeat a candidate for public office” and was charged under a Minnesota state law that holds candidates and campaign staffs personally responsible when they make “demonstrably false claims in the course of their campaigns.”

Jude launched a television ad the Friday before the November 1994 election that portrayed the Democratic incumbent, Bill Luther, as soft on crime. The ad blamed Luther’s position on a crime bill sponsored by Jude when both served in the State Senate for a kidnapping committed by a furloughed
sex offender. Prosecutors alleged that Luther’s vote had “no effect on the case of the convicted repeat sex offender.” Jude lost by just 550 votes — the closest House race in the nation that year.

After his indictment, Jude said he believed the information to be true, and hinted that Winkler was to blame. Winkler, a Philadelphia resident, declined to return to Minnesota for an arraignment, and his indictment was canceled in 1996 when a state court ruled that the law violated the First Amendment.

In 2005, Winkler threatened legal action against PoliticsNJ.com, saying that his client in a State Assembly race suspected that he was the one who leaked an e-mail to him describing a telephone conversation with former Co-Senate President John Bennett. This website, which never said Winkler was or was not the source, neither confirmed nor denied the identity of our sources. The client eventually dropped out of the race.

Consultant stirs the pot in 24th district Senate race