If Murray Sabrin’s press releases from the primary campaign were to be taken literally, the New Jersey political scene would have been even more of a Bizarro World than it already is.
Republican Senate nominee Dick Zimmer would have been under federal investigation. Sabrin would have been endorsed by Gannett, or rather, the corpse of newspaper mogul Frank Gannet. Joe Pennacchio would have been a fascist. Tom Wilson would have resigned in disgrace from his post as Republican State Chairman. Chris Christie would not be the favorite potential GOP candidate for Governor next year. And Sabrin, who ultimately got 14% of the vote on primary day, would have been the clear frontrunner throughout the Republican Senate race and would have won every debate he participated in.
“Throughout this campaign we employed a creative strategy to try to cut through in a race where the press was paying very little attention to Murray Sabrin,” said George Ajjan, a former Republican kamikaze congressional candidate and frequent Republican pundit/blogger who worked as Sabrin’s communications director.
Ajjan was the operative who devised Sabrin’s unorthodox communications strategy that was at times clever and funny – like the time that Sabrin managed to get a blog entry on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site for letting $20,000 in campaign contributions ride in a 20-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby – but also earned ridicule from members of the Republican political establishment who bore the brunt of many of Sabrin’s press releases.
Ajjan won’t call his communications strategy misleading. He prefers the term “creative,” and notes that the press releases went out to the press and political insiders, as opposed to the general public, which saw a polished, mild-mannered candidate with a good grasp of economic issues.
“The point is that we have to separate what the insiders are seeing versus what the public at large saw. What the public at large saw was very articulate, and an accomplished advocate of limited government,” said Ajjan. “If a few insiders and reporters didn’t like our creative approach to public relations, so be it.”
And many political observers thought that Sabrin came off well in debates. The problem, according to Monmouth University pollster and political science professor Patrick Murray, was that it was tough to reconcile strong debate performances with whacky campaign literature.
According to Murray, Sabrin’s communications strategy riled up Libertarian-leaning Republicans and turned them out to the polls. But a candidate can’t win without broader appeal, and Sabrin’s communications strategy made it tough for political insiders and observers to take him seriously.
“There’s a cap to the number of libertarian leaning voters in New Jersey. You can do everything you can to get them out and they were successful, but you’re not going to broaden your appeal beyond that,” said Murray. “When you make claims that are blatantly at odds with reality, even if you’re doing it to simply stoke the veins of your most passionate supporters, you’re going to be seen as someone out of touch with the way politics works in this state.”
Tom Wilson, the Republican State Chairman, won’t blame Ajjan for the tone of the Sabrin campaign, and he hopes to repair a now frayed relationship.
“George has been a friend and hopefully at some point our paths will cross and he’ll explain to me what was going on and how it is that he came to really what I perceive to be a 180 degree swing on what I saw as a good relationship,” said Wilson.
As for Sabrin, that’s another story, according to Wilson. Even if Ajjan wrote the press releases, the ultimate responsibility for the campaign belongs to Sabrin and not the staffers who do his bidding. Sabrin’s press release announcing an intention to run against Chris Christie for governor for ignoring his entreaties to investigate Zimmer were the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“There is very little tolerance from people who roll up their sleeves and go to work for people who stand at the sidelines and throw stones, and that’s how a lot of people felt,” said Wilson. “By the end of the campaign, people weren’t angry, people weren’t mad. People were laughing. His tactics became so comedic.”
It wasn’t just mainstream, moderate Republicans Sabrin alienated, however. The communications strategy even managed to turn off conservative activist Steve Lonegan – no stranger to controversy himself – who backed out of a role as the guest of honor at a Sabrin fundraiser because of the negative tone of the campaign.
Ajjan managed to help get Sabrin three times the percentage that Ron Paul did in the presidential primary. But despite an impressive turnout for a politician who mainstream Republicans derided as a “fringe candidate,” Ajjan runs the risk of being persona-non-grata to those he railed against.
“He has certainly set himself as someone who can work for a fringe candidate and help a fringe candidate, but not much more than that,” said Murray. “I don’t see any Republican candidate in the future knocking on his front door.”
After the primary results rolled in, and it became clear that a Ajjan issued press release earlier that afternoon predicting a Sabrin victory was not prophetic, Sabrin offered his full support to the Zimmer, the winner.
Ajjan, however, said he has no regrets, and thinks that ruffled Republican feathers will smooth over time.
“I think that people, both that have worked with me and those that know me, know that I fight to win, and that people have respected the work I’ve done for the party,” said Ajjan. “I don’t consider myself an outsider to the party, but I’m not and have never been a Kool-Aid drinker. Even when I was a freshman on the scene in 2004, I did things my own way and I’m very proud of that.
Update: Ajjan is now working for Bob Yudin, a candidate for Bergen County Republican Chairman.