By MAX PIZARRO
Republican Party officials have missed an opportunity to challenge an embattled State Senator in the 22nd district. And on Wednesday, two days after the primary filing deadline for Legislative races, the GOP leadership collectively offered no stirring endorsement of a candidate who hopes to ward off an Assemblywoman intent on upsetting a Republican Congressman next year.
"There was a mixup with the petitions and we didn’t get the requisite number of signatures," Union County GOP Chairman Phil Morin said of his party’s failure to field a State Senate contestant. "But we intend to write-in a candidate in the June primary."
The state Division of Elections initially listed Bryan DesRochers as a candidate for State Senate — and a challenger to incumbent Sen. Nicholas Scutari, whom the Democrats nominated in 2003 when Joseph Suliga abruptly ended his re-election bid.
Scutari is one of three legislators served with a subpoena connected to a federal probe of legislators receiving an alleged personal benefit from state budget items. Scutari’s wife works for a non-profit organization that received state funds.
Elections officials admitted they made a mistake when they listed DesRochers as a candidate in the Senate race.
"He was in the wrong pile," state spokesman David Wald said of DesRochers and his 105 signatures. "DesRochers actually filed as an Assembly candidate."
That left no one in the pile representing the GOP against Scutari.
David Rebovich, director of the Rider University Institute of New Jersey Politics, said he fails to understand the GOP’s logic in not at least fielding a primary candidate.
"I guess no one’s willing to pony up the money, but again this reflects the frustration of the Republican Party," said Rebovich.
In the 2003 election, Republican Martin Marks, the Mayor of Scotch Plains, won 45% of the vote against Scutari, and carried seven out of the district’s ten towns. In 2004, George W. Bush won 40% against John Kerry in the district.
Even though he confessed the GOP intended to have someone in place before the filing deadline — he told PoliticsNJ.com on Friday that his candidate was Dirk Webber — Morin suggested the Republicans are waiting to see if Scutari bows out under legal pressure, and if Assemblywoman Linda Stender then steps up and runs for Senate.
A rip-snorting Republican looking to polish off Scutari may instead wind up encountering the formidable Stender, making an early primary entrance in a shifting political landscape a potential GOP money burner and heartbreaker.
No one knows the battlefield better than Marks.
"I have considered another run," said the man who has served as Mayor of Scotch Plains for eight years. "I have been asked by Republican officials. But there are two things holding me back."
The first is money.
Marks said in the last campaign he was able to raise $100,000 on his own — with no help from a GOP unwilling to gamble on the 22nd — and he was outspent by Scutari at least 5-1.
"I’m not prepared to do that again," Marks said.
And again, Republican leadership is unprepared to provide the heavy artillery.
"If Senator (Leonard) Lance and Mr. (Thomas) Wilson thought I was strong, they would invest in my campaign. But I haven’t heard from them," said the mayor.
The second reason pulling him up short is the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Based on his first foray against a still upright Scutari four years ago, Marks says he believes he could beat the Democrat. The trouble is the looming figure of Stender, and what Marks describes as the Democrats’ undo influence with the judges.
“Joe Suliga withdrew from the election after the deadline, and the court allowed Suliga to switch with Scutari," said Marks.
So Marks stays out of the fray, and for the moment at least, in the face of Democrats who are challenging his signatures, the untested DesRochers is the man Republicans are sending out there against Stender and Assemblyman Jerry Green.
Hoping to stir up union support, DesRochers admits he’s mostly targeting Green, who he says stood with State. Sen. Stephen Sweeney on the steps of the State Capitol last year and put a frightful hurt on union workers with talk of chopping public employees pensions.
A self-described moderate who would likely support Barack Obama over Rudy Giuliani in a presidential matchup, DesRochers says he believes in smaller government — and to that end is happy to go after Stender. Editor's Note: DesRochers denies his Obama endorsement, and PoliticsNJ.com will give him the benefit of the doubt.
An Assemblywoman since 2002, the Assemblywoman won 49% of the vote in her bid last year to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson, and vowed after Ferguson’s narrow victory to run against him again in 2008.
"We gave him a scare," Stender told PoliticsNJ.com as she left an Assembly Transportation Committee hearing early last month.
In the face of an emboldened Stender, Republican Party officials yesterday and today – with the exception of Morin — seemed to know little about the 29-year-old DesRochers, who lost a bid for Rahway City Council last year.
"I think the person we put in that race is a great candidate," Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce said of the district 22 Assembly race. "Frankly, most of the put people we put in place are great candidates."
But he wouldn’t expound on the particular virtues of DesRochers.
Neither would Todd Riffle at the Republican Party State Committee Office, who referred PoliticsNJ.com to DeCroce.
Middlesex County GOP Chairman Joseph Leo did not seem aware of the shortfall of district 22 GOP candidates.
"I only know what I read in the Star-Ledger," he said.
The newspaper and PoliticsNJ.com — initially printed the state Division of Elections mistake, which showed Scutari challenged by Des Rochers and Stender and Green as unopposed.
Leo pointed out that the 22nd district only serves two towns in Middlesex County: Middlesex and Dunellen.
Somerset County Republican Chairman Dale Florio likewise underscored that Union County is the district’s bulk county with seven towns.
"Somerset only has Greenbrook and North Plainfield in the 22nd district," said Florio. "I usually defer to Union County and Phil Morin."
Morin defended Des Rochers.
"I think Bryan is an excellent candidate," said Morin. "He is a hard worker, a union member (with CWA) and he will run a spirited race. I was impressed with his effort in his race for an at-large council seat in Rahway. He showed a lot of energy and enthusiasm and he showed he will be a formidable candidate."
Back in Scotch Plains, Marks knows as long as the GOP leaves its candidates in no man’s land, the 3-1 Democratic District will feast on Republicans — the tested and untested alike. And he knows Stender unchallenged financially means the Assemblywoman’s war-chest will grow. She squirreled corporate money away from her 2006 bid. Without a ferocious fight in the 22nd district, she can keep collecting cash for another run at Ferguson.
"It would be in Congressman Ferguson’s interest to see that Stender is weakened this year," said Marks.
Facing a gaping GOP hole at the top of the district 22 primary ballot on Tuesday, DeCroce took a shot at Democrats – who might be able to prop up bodies to run in races, but can’t summon the energy to give themselves an ethical overhaul, in DeCroce's view.
"Nobody on my side of the fence has been subpoenaed or indicted," said the Assembly Republican Leader.
But undiminished is the fact that the Republicans have no one running against a wounded Scutari, and appear to be gun-shy when it comes to Stender.