By MATT FRIEDMAN
With the race for GOP State Chairman just three weeks away, incumbent Tom Wilson has only nine of the 22 votes he needs to win solidly in his column. Another nine members of the Republican State Committee are leaning toward a second term, but nearly a third of the voters in this race say they are still undecided.
PoliticsNJ.com surveyed 34 of the 42 state committee members who will choose between Wilson and his two challengers, former Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso and former Assembly Majority Leader Paul DiGaetano in the June 14 election.
Mancuso has two definite votes, while one is leaning toward DiGaetano. Thirteen State Committee members told PoliticsNJ.com that they were undecided, and eight did not return calls seeking comment.
“That doesn’t sound good to me for an incumbent,” said Joe Romance, a Professor of Political Science at Drew University. “And that may reflect the fact that the GOP is sort of in disarray in Jersey in general. I mean obviously he’s got a majority, but generally incumbents would have a higher number.”
The woes of the state party have weighed on Wilson’s popularity with some state committee members and the party officials who often guide their votes. Most of those surveyed expressed frustration at the party’s minority status in both state houses and the loss of the governorship.
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, the Democratic State Chairman, said that, given the Republicans’ poor election performance, he’s not terribly surprised by what could be tepid support for Wilson.
“A chairman’s role is that you get judged on wins and losses. And it’s just tough,” said Cryan.
But the question is whether Wilson bears any responsibility for the State Republicans’ minority status. Just being in the same party as President Bush has, by many accounts, dampened the popularity of its local candidates.
“I think [Tom Wilson] does bear some responsibility for it,” said Sussex County State Committeewoman Ann Kievet, who said she was undecided on who to vote. She says he is “very unhappy” with the way the state Republican Party was faring in elections, and felt that Sussex County Republicans were not getting enough resources from Wilson.
“The chairman has to be responsible for what’s going on in their state,” she said.
Joe Truch, the Mercer County State Committeeman, felt differently.
“Everybody labels Republicans as if we’re all George Bush,” said Truch. Adding to the problem is that Democrats have more money – something he does not fault Wilson for failing to overcome. “It doesn’t help that you have Corzine, a guy who spends money like it’s water on a hot august afternoon,” said Truch, who thinks the state GOP’s fortunes are beginning to turn around under Wilson, and expects his party to win the senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg next year.
A few committee members also expressed reservations about Wilson’s ties to Robert Stears, who recently pleaded guilty to over billing the Burlington County Bridge Commission by hundreds of thousands of dollars. While nobody suggested Wilson bore any responsibility for Stears’ crime, many thought it would be hard to make ethics an issue against Democrats with a chairman associated with someone corrupt.
“I realize that [Robert Stears] is not Tom Wilson,” said Gloucester County State Committeeman Phil Rhudy, who backs Mancuso. “But this wasn’t a humongous firm… That makes it tough to attack the Democrats on an ethics charge when a partner that you were involved closely with pleaded guilty to over billing.”
Though the vote totals so far are in Wilson’s favor, many of the undecided votes will be made with the input of County Chairs and other Republican officials who don’t actually get to vote, said Ingrid Reed, the Director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. And there has been some criticism of Wilson in the press from those officials.
“The undecided in this case are really very important,” said Reed. “They will no doubt be influenced by other party leaders who don’t necessarily have a vote but are important to the party.”
Colette Campbell of Bergen County said she will listen to the other candidates and keep an open mind, but if she doesn’t like what she hears, she’ll stick with Wilson. Republicans in Hudson and Middlesex counties were among the uncommitted voters in this race.
DiGaetano, who spent sixteen years in the State Assembly before running for Governor in 2005, was not discouraged by the single vote he got leaning his way in the survey. He had not yet met with all the committee members, he said, and added that he thinks more than one person support him.
Mancuso was also optimistic about his chances. He said he was working hard to meet all the committee members and the influential power players in the state, and that the race’s dynamic will shift drastically during the next few weeks. The former GOP State Finance Chairman thinks his fundraising experience, along with the fact that he will work full-time at the job without a salary, will appeal to voters — it’s just a matter of introducing himself to them.
“Unless you can see the person and do a one-on-one with them, it becomes a very difficult thing to make a convincing argument over the phone,” said Mancuso. “As you draw towards the last three or four weeks, the dynamic changes radically and drastically.”
The two State Committee member from Mancuso’s home county, Morris, were among the eight that declined to participate in the survey.
Wilson has his own count that bodes better for him than this survey, he said. He’s confident that he will win the state chairmanship, though he says he’s not taking it for granted and is actively campaigning to keep his job.
“They seem to recognize the effort I’ve put forward and understand that this is a multi-year process for us to change things,” said Wilson of the committee members. He added that he respected both Mancuso and DiGaetano. And he’s not worried about Democrats attacking him for being associated with Stears.
“I told Doug Forrester and Tom Kean that if they’re attacking me they’re not attacking you. Part of my job as state chairman is to draw fire – to take the shots,” said Wilson. “If we can provide them a powerful forward looking message, an agenda that touches them and makes them believe that it is worth voting again, we’ll be successful no matter what handful of mud Rich McGrath or Joe Cryan try to throw at me.”
“I like taking bullets,” he added.
Wilson’s core support comes from former Senate President John Bennett of Monmouth, former Assemblywomen Priscilla Anderson of Burlington and Virginia Haines of Ocean, William Crosby and Sally Tullis de Barcza of Somerset, Mary Van Lieu of Warren, Brigantine Mayor Philip Guenther of Atlantic, former Cumberland County Freeholder James Rocco of Cumberland, and Truch.
Apparently not a factor in this contest is Wilson’s support of presidential candidate John McCain in a state that is strongly in Rudy Giuliani’s column. Mancuso and DiGaetano are Giuliani backers, but several state GOP leaders supporting the former New York City Mayor are also backing Wilson’s re-election bid.
Wilson won his first term after the 2004 general election, defeating former Assemblyman C. Richard Kamin.