Zimmer enters Republican primary for U.S. Senate

As former Congressman Dick Zimmer formally entered the Republican U.S. Senate race today, he essentially becomes the third candidate to fill a single candidacy.

First there was Anne Estabrook. Andy Unanue took her place after she suffered a minor stroke. Zimmer jumped in to the race after Unanue’s campaign disintegrated in less than three weeks.

Just as Unanue inherited most of the Estabrook campaign infrastructure – who had been paid a severance that lasted until the June primary while they waited for a candidate to take her place– Zimmer is poised to take over much of Unanue’s staff, including Campaign Manager Mark Duffy (though a few shake ups are expected).

But first, Zimmer will have to face a challenge from rival Republican candidate Joe Pennacchio in the primary.

Today, Zimmer issued a simple statement declaring his candidacy, to be followed by a formal campaign kickoff sometime later this month (which Unanue, who announced his candidacy while on vacation in Vail, Colo., never had).

“I am honored to have the opportunity to run for the United States Senate. I have lived in New Jersey all my life. I raised my family here,” said Zimmer, a Washington lawyer/lobbyist who lives on a farm in Hunterdon County. “This is a critical time for the people of my home state and for all Americans. We need to strengthen our economy, keep our families safe and meet our challenges around the world. I am running for the United States Senate to ensure that New Jersey’s future is one of opportunity, affordability and hope.”

Zimmer has surfaced as the choice of the GOP establishment. He is poised not only to inherit the Estabrook/Unanue staff, but also the nine county lines won by Unanue. The two lines won by Pennacchio over the course of the last two months – Hunterdon and Somerset – could soon turn over to Zimmer.

Zimmer has also spoken with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign, who supports his candidacy, according to his friend and consultant Larry Weitzner. (The NRSC remains officially neutral in primary elections, though Ensign had given his personal support to Estabrook and Unanue).

Cape May County Chairman David Von Savage said that Zimmer definitely has his county’s line, and he expects other chairmen to follow through as well.

“He’s going to have Cape May’s line, and since Andy has endorsed Zimmer, I think it adds that much more certainty that the lines Andy had will be transferred to the former Congressman,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pennacchio has filed a challenge to the board of elections, saying that Unanue did not sign his campaign oath “in good faith” and therefore Zimmer’s candidacy is invalid.

“I don’t have any problems with Dick Zimmer the man. It’s just the candidacy we have an issue with,” said Pennacchio. “That candidacy stems from the candidacy of someone who was just a placeholder. I don’t think that’s what the law is – that you could have a designated placeholder and make up your mind about it afterwards.”

Democrats are already sharpening their attacks, referring to Zimmer as a “lobbyist and Newt Gingrich acolyte who couldn’t win a 1996 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Bob Toricelli, or a 2000 Challenge against incumbent 12th district Democratic Rep. Rush Holt.”

“Republicans are getting pretty desperate when the only candidate they can find is a Washington lobbyist whose most famous accomplishment in Congress was helping write Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America,” said Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Spokesman.

Ken Kurson, a spokesman for the Zimmer campaign, shot back, “The DSCC must see how vulnerable Frank Lautenberg is and what a terrific candidate Dick Zimmer will make for them to have issued such a ludicrous statement in such a frenzied way.”

The 1996 Senate race has gone down as one of the nastiest in state history, according to Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.

If Zimmer goes on to win the Republican nomination – which this late in the game is no sure thing – it will be interesting to see how different this race will be than the one from 12 years ago.

“That race was one that really seemed to make New Jerseyans, for the first time, sort of say ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this,’” Reed said. “I think this is a different time. It’s 10 years later, and it also is the primary.”

Zimmer enters Republican primary for U.S. Senate