BRANCHBURG – Next door to the pizza parlor where Kate Whitman pauses before working the backroom of local Republicans two weeks before Election Day stands a Cryan’s Ale House.
Someone throws the name of the tavern owned by the family of State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan in her direction, and the 31-year old daughter of former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman smiles with recognition.
"I grew up just up the street, and I went to Cryan’s all the time," says the 7th Congressional District candidate.
But if she pleasantly surprised some of her opponents who thought she would come into the race with riding crop and foxhounds, she also encountered a party that gave her and her family a jolt bordering on disrespect, as she failed to secure party backing based on her mother’s clout and lost three of the district’s four organizational lines in the pre-primary.
She compensated for that with a universally recognized shoe-leather effort, and with fund-raising.
Running on cutting spending and cutting taxes, Whitman drummed up a mountain of cash – $540,000 total for her campaign, including $100,000 in the last period. Now heading into June 3, she is the seven-person primary field’s most aggressive TV ad and mail competitor, as she aims to get her message out there while scraping up front-running state Sen. Leonard Lance.
"We’re about to drop our 12th mail piece," says Whitman.
Her Fox news television commercial lambasting Lance for failing to stem the bleeding of state spending created a wave of scorn from the very GOP establishment she had initially hoped to corral as she came into this contest.
Lance and GOP allies from the State Legislature met Whitman’s attack ad with incredulity and dismay at a press conference last month.
"Never seen anything this negative in Somerset County," said Assemblyman Pete Biondi (R-Somerville).
Whitman doesn’t call the TV ad or subsequent mailers "attack" pieces.
"I would say this latest mailer is a comparison and contrast piece," she says. "We need to show the differences between Sen. Lance and myself. My name ID is high (97%, according to internal polls, compared to 68% for Lance) but I need to show people who I am. I need to show them my six-point policy plan. To my knowledge, no other candidate has put out a legislative agenda."
She adds, "Sen. Lance is running on being principled and on his record. What I’m doing is simply identifying his record, which is fair game. I would never do anything that’s a personal attack."
Arguably most significantly, Whitman in at least one of her mailers questions Lance’s leadership ability based on the GOP’s bloodless coup in Trenton that dislodged Lance from his role as minority leader. She further questions the judgement of those Senate caucus members and Assembly apologists who booted Lance from his role as minority leader, only to line up behind him in his congressional bid.
Her team says she’s in second place in those three counties where the greatest number of Republican primary voters are concentrated: Hunterdon, Somerset and Union. In Middlesex, that portion of the district that contains the fewest Republicans and where she won the county line, she is targeting 7,600 possible voters.
"My mother used to do very well there as well," says the candidate. "It’s not a write-off, by any means. I’ve been going door-to-door in Middlesex there since December. In Woodbridge, there are 160 county committee seats at stake. I want to work hard with them."
Whatever campaign time divisions keep the Lance and Whitman camps in battle mode from now until June 4, the young candidate says she is confident about her ability to line up with the party in the event Lance beats her.
"I told Sen. Lance at the beginning that if I lose, I will work for him until he wins in November," Whitman says. "I’m a party person and I stand by that."
Of course, she says she’ll win.
If she doesn’t, she will likely go back to selling real estate and the anti-Linda Stender effort leading up to the general election, but probably, she says with a laugh, "Not before going to the beach with my sons for about a month."