Senate candidates gear up for eight county conventions

Over the course of the next week, brand new U.S. Senate candidate Andy Unanue will have a chance to cement his status as the Republican favorite to take on incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg in a marathon series of eight conventions.

Between tomorrow and next Wednesday, there are Republican county conventions coming up in Monmouth, Mercer, Ocean, Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, Middlesex and Somerset. County committees will decide between Unanue, a businessman who’s an heir to the Goya Foods fortune and the heir apparent to the campaign of former candidate Anne Estabrook, and his two Republican competitors: state Sen. Joe Pennacchio and Ramapo College finance professor Murray Sabrin.

The person who each committee picks will be awarded a coveted spot on the party line, which typically provides a boost to the candidate whose name occupies it.

But Pennacchio, not to be counted out, is focusing on winning the line in traditionally Democratic counties where he believes he can appeal to a working-class “Reagan Democrat base” in the general election – specifically Mercer and Middlesex. He already has the line in Bergen County, although that may change if Republican Chairman Rob Ortiz meets with his executive committee and opts to give the line to Unanue, a personal friend who he recruited. He’s also got the line in Hunterdon, Passaic and Union counties.

Sabrin, meanwhile, is disappointed that the format of the upcoming conventions is not similar to the one he won last week in Gloucester County.

In Republican powerhouse counties like Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic, Unanue has the backing of party leaders, whose influence could give him the edge — even in his absence (he’s attending a pre-planned family vacation in Vail, Colo. until early next month and will be represented by surrogates).

Unanue campaign manager Mark Duffy said that he’s working on figuring out who Unanue’s surrogates will be, in addition to getting the required 1,000 petition signatures due by the filing deadline of April 7.

Duffy said the campaign’s message at the conventions will be “that Andy Unanue represents the change we need in New Jersey and the change we need in Washington. That he is someone from outside of politics. We are not going to get the kind of change we need from a perennial candidate or a career politician.”

In Ocean, Unanue already has the screening committee’s nod and, if history is any guide, he’s likely to be voted in by the county conventions. There have been aberrations – most notably Freeholder (and now Congressional candidate) Jack Kelly’s initial freeholder run fifteen year ago, when he won the line in a floor fight.

Coinciding exactly with Ocean County’s convention is Atlantic County, where Chairman Keith Davis has also endorsed Unanue. Also endorsing Unanue is popular County Executive Dennis Levinson, who himself recently flirted with running for the same Senate seat.

Still, as the Press of Atlantic City reported over the weekend, Pennacchio still has the support of local Assemblymen Vince Polistina and John Amodeo, along with former state Sen. Sonny McCullough and Folsom Mayor/Freeholder candidate Thomas N. Ballistreri.

“I’m not going to be a prognosticator as to what will happen in Atlantic,” said Davis. “I think he has the best chance of success against Frank Lautenberg, and I think he’ll help our entire ticket down to our freeholder candidates this year.”

Cumberland County will hold its convention on Saturday. Republican Chairman Larry Pepper is out of town, and it’s not known whether he plans to formally endorse any candidates.

Cumberland County Clerk Gloria Noto, a GOP state committeewoman and a member of the local party’s executive committee, had not heard about Unanue’s candidacy, but said that a young, wealthy businessman in the mold of Anne Estabrook sounds like a “refreshing” choice.

Noto had supported Estabrook until she dropped out.

“If he is taking a stand like Anne Estabrook, I think that would be very meaningful for us,” she said, adding that she wasn’t bothered that Unanue wouldn’t be able to make it in person. “If (Unanue’s vacation) was already planned, I think we would look on that as a positive thing, that he will not put politics before his family vacation plan.”

On Monday night in Salem, New Jersey’s least populous county, Republican chairman Paul Reed will preside over the first convention held there since he took office a year ago. Reed has decided to personally endorse Unanue, and is sending a letter out to county committeemen and women informing them of his choice today.

Since Reed hasn’t been in office long, he’s not sure how much weight his advice will carry, but said that the county in the past has tended to go along with the chairman’s wishes.

“He just seems to be the right guy,” said Reed.

Although some of the conventions will be uphill battles, Pennacchio plans to attend every one, along with the Essex and Camden County screening committee’s meetings tonight — time and traffic permitting – although Unanue is the favorite to get those lines as well.

“I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to get in my car and keep doing the speed limit, of course,” he said.

Pennacchio’s strategy to focus on winning over blue collar Democratic areas squares with his populist “Jersey Joe” persona, which most obvious in his campaign slogan: “He’s one of us!”

“A Republican will not win this state unless he can win Mercer, Bergen and Middlesex County,” he said. “Those are the counties with the bountiful crop of Reagan Democrats… But we have to focus like a laser beam on those counties I just mentioned.”

Pennacchio has a good shot in Middlesex, where he won the screening committee’s nod earlier this month. Indeed, Chairman Joe Leo is one of the few who has not been contacted directly by Unanue, and nobody has arranged for a surrogate to attend the convention in his place (the Unanue campaign has until Friday to do so).

Leo said that he will endorse whoever wins the convention.

Pennacchio said that his “Nationalist Agenda” from 1991 that troubled some members of the party leadership has had no noticeable impact with rank-and-file Republicans, and noted as evidence that he won the county line in Passaic soon after the work was publicized.

In fact, Pennacchio lamented that so much of the attention to the Senate race over the last week has focused on that work rather than a discussion of the issues. Indeed, Pennacchio tried to infuse some of those issues into the race yesterday by issuing a press release with a series of policy related questions for Unanue, while Sabrin and Democrats instead attacked him as an entitled heir who owns a nightclub.

“I don’t feel like negative campaigning. I never done it in my life and we’re not going to start now. We have a responsibility to tell the people where we want to take them and how we plan on getting them there,” he said.

Warren County Republican Chairman Doug Steinhardt will remain in Pennacchio’s camp, despite a call from Unanue. But his support doesn’t guarantee the party line, and he’s working to organize a convention late next month to award it.

“I made my personal commitment. Unfortunately, Andy hadn’t been in the race yet,” said Steinhardt, who served on Estabrook’s exploratory committee but shifted backed Pennacchio before Estabrook dropped out of the race. “I’m hoping that Andy and Joe will participate and we’ll see what shakes out at the end of the month.”

Sabrin spokesman George Ajjan said that Sabrin plans to attend all — or a
t least most — of the upcoming conventions. But he’s disappointed that the candidates will not have a chance to debate.

“We’re always in this to present our message to the Republican rank and file, and as was shown in Gloucester County, when they have sufficient opportunity to evaluate the message of the candidate, Murray will emerge victorious,” he said. “It doesn’t look like any of the county chairs are affording us the opportunity or have set up a debate, which is unfortunate.”

Senate candidates gear up for eight county conventions