By MAX PIZARRO
As Republicans prepare their campaign to unseat Democrat Frank Lautenberg next year, their most likely candidate is Michael Doherty, a three-term Assemblyman from Warren County and one of New Jersey’s most conservative legislators.
Doherty says he’s interested in running, and his supporters regard the 43-year-old West Point graduate as a sharp, but blue collar alternative to the classic Republican mold of Clifford Case, Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman.
Case was the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey €” in 1972. Deeply admired by centrists in both major parties, but generally detested by cultural conservatives and hard-right Republicans, he was defeated for renomination in the 1978 Republican primary.
"Clifford Case was not embraced by the National Republican Party," said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
He wasn’t the only New Jersey Republican moderate who over time found himself having to plead "It’s my party, too."
"Christie Todd Whitman struggled," said Reed. "The party here is polarized into a moderate wing and a conservative wing, and it’s difficult for Republicans to win in the state if they don’t have party unity."
As a hard-boiled conservative, Doherty makes a case for being the anti-Case.
"I’m going around and talking to folks, meeting with folks," acknowledged Doherty in a telephone interview this week. "Now, I’m a middle class guy. The guys who have won have been indisputably wealthy, multi-millionaires. But I have an excellent message. I’m a small government, traditional conservative."
Alert to Lautenberg’s $2 million war-chest, Doherty hopes to secure GOP support now that the party is in gear-up mode. He wants to let the power brokers in Jersey and in Washington, D.C. know he’d like to be a player.
Although described as "hard-edged" by colleagues and prone to displays of anger, Doherty commands respect as a West Point graduate who isn't in particularly good humor as he assesses the military he loves stretched in Iraq, and government spending offensive to his sense of fiscal conservatism.
Chris Stark, newly elected chairman of the New Jersey College Republicans, says the party can win if it returns to core principles.
"We have to ask the question, 'Why are we Republicans?'," Stark says. "It's not only issues like immigration and securing our borders, it's spending. …Republicans nationally and Democrats in the State of New Jersey are spending irresponsibly. All of a sudden, we really have to show that we are the party that cares about fiscal conservatism."
On that score, Doherty caught Stark's attention at the organization’s convention in East Brunswick last Friday.
"With Republicans wanting to get back to basics, people really want to give a conservative candidate another shot," says Stark. ""I think there are a lot of good guys out there who would make fine candidates. I think Doherty would be a formidable candidate. He’s got an amazing presence. He’s real, and you can tell he cares."
Some Republicans say that State Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. performed reasonably well last year in a difficult political contest, as he faced a candidate who opposed the Iraq War even as that conflict grew, and as President George W. Bush nose-dived in the polls.
But in the opinion of his harshest critics, Kean attacked U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and made a war against corruption the centerpiece of his campaign, at the expense of taking conservative stands on issues. They also lament Kean’s undeniably aristocratic presence.
"We’ve run one Mayflower descendent, one aristocrat, after another," complains GOP operator Rick Shaftan, who ran Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan’s campaign for governor in 2005.
But the same party stalwarts who talk about unveiling a working class hero are also aware of the hazards of going to the other end of the spectrum.
Another possible U.S. Senate candidate is Assemblyman Bill Baroni. But some insiders wonder if there is a statewide market for a pro-union Republican. Baroni’s labor-friendly views make him immensely popular in his home district, but could pose problems beyond the boundaries of Mercer and Middlesex.
"I think in a general election with Senator Frank Lautenberg, the unions would say, €˜We love you, Bill, but Frank’s been our guy,’" says Shaftan.
In any case, Baroni appears focused on his bid for State Senate to represent the 14th district, which is another reason why Doherty, who is expected to easily win re-election in his solidly-GOP district, is talking about making the move.
While some potential candidates are still waiting to see if indeed the 83-year old Lautenberg is going to be the opponent, most Republicans have been facing the Democratic senator for so long now they can hardly envision facing anyone else.
"He’s probably just arrogant enough to believe the world can’t exist without him," GOP Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll says of Lautenberg.
But what hardcore Republicans see in their Pygmalion workshops – and may glimpse in the nascent campaign of Doherty, they can’t summon in terms of recent victorious historical reference, and that disconnect between ideal and real has literally driven some of their numbers out of the state.
Jeffrey Bell, the man who beat Case in the Republican Primary of 1980, ran as a conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan, his onetime boss. Like Doherty, Bell was a tough guy and former military man, and projected little of the affable, avuncular style of Reagan.
In the general election, Bell lost to Bill Bradley, 55 % to 43 %. Four years later, he narrowly lost a GOP U.S. Senate primary to Millicent Fenwick.
Convinced New Jersey was a hopeless cause, Bell moved to Virginia.
"Bell’s attitude was, €˜I couldn’t win, so nobody can,’" says Shaftan. "I don’t buy that. Republicans have to run a candidate who has appeal in swing districts."
Though Baroni has consistently done that, Doherty believes he can do it, in part by asserting core principles of fiscal conservatism, tackling tough issues like border security, and leveraging his military background to pursue smarter foreign policy.
Anne Evans Estabrook, a Summit businesswoman and former New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President, is also mulling a bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination next year.