Last week, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie officially announced he will seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The entrance of Christie in the race, who is leading Governor Jon Corzine in the latest Quinnipiac pool, has excited Republican leaders and ant-Corzine voters yearning for a change in the governor's office.
Chris Christie is this year's Establishment candidate, which means it is his race to lose. GOP county chairs are lining up behind Christie, guaranteeing him the coveted "line" in virtually all the counties. In addition, the GOP legislative leadership and scores of local officials are rallying behind Christie. The question that remains to be answered: Is Christie's nomination all but assured?
If history is any guide in GOP primaries, the Establishment candidate typically prevails. Let's look at the most recent statewide GOP primaries. In the 2008 U.S. Senate primary, the Establishment favorite Anne Estabrook was lining up support across the state. With her "deep pockets" the pundits believed Ms. Estabrook was easily on the way to the nomination until she dropped out of the race because of illness in early March. Andy Unanue was then recruited by GOP insiders from the ski hills of Vail only to drop out to be replaced by Dick Zimmer, former congressman and 1996 U.S. Senate nominee, who won the primary with 46% of the vote.
Despite Dick Zimmer's late entrance into the race as the third Establishment candidate, he was able to get GOP "regulars" to put him over the top last June. State senator Joe Pennacchio (40%) ran a spirited race. He was endorsed by New Jersey Right to Life by claiming support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. At the same time Pennacchio was also appealing to pro-choice voters by telling them Roe vs. Wade is the "law of the land." Finance professor Murray Sabrin (14%) got fiscal conservative, limited government votes, as well as some pro-life votes (he was endorsed by prolife organizations in the 1997 gubernatorial election and in the 2000 GOP U.S. Senate primary) and probably many anti-war Iraq votes.
In 2006, state senator Tom Kean Jr. easily defeated pro-life, fiscal conservative attorney John Ginty, 75% to 25%. Ginty had virtually no financial resources but still received nearly 43,000 votes. The New Jersey Right to Life endorsement was the key to Ginty's respectable showing.
A year earlier Doug Forrester won the GOP gubernatorial nomination with nearly 109,000 votes (38%) while the GOP's 2001 nominee Bret Schundler received 94,417 votes (31%). Schundler received about 100,000 less votes in 2005 than he did in 2001, virtually the exact amount of votes the other five candidates in the primary received: Morris County freeholder John Murphy (33,800), Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan (24,433), Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano (16,763), businessman Bob Schroder (16,684), and former Bergen County freeholder Todd Caliguire (7,463).
Three years earlier, Doug Forrester won the 2002 U.S. Senate primary defeating state senators Diane Allen and John Matheussen (the prolife candidate), and was well on his way toward victory against Senator Torricelli in the general election when the senator's questionable ethics caused him to drop out of the race in October, assuring that Doug Forrester was going to be the next U.S. Senator from New Jersey.
As would have it, Senator Torricelli dropped out of the race past the deadline to replace him, yet the state Supreme Court still allowed the Democrats to substitute retired senator Frank Lautenberg as its nominee who then beat Forrester in the general election a few short weeks later. One of the greatest political thefts in U.S. history cost Doug Forrester the opportunity to serve in the United State Senate. The Supreme Court's egregious decision, in 2002, may have had profound effects on New Jersey's political landscape since then, but we will never know.
In 2001, former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler ran a flawless insurgent campaign to win the nomination against Bob Franks, former congressman, state GOP chairman, and assemblyman and 2000 U.S. Senate nominee, for the gubernatorial nomination. Franks had all the county lines that were up for grabs as well as the support of virtually every top official in the state GOP. Schundler put together a coalition of fiscal and social conservatives, and with a sizeable war chest easily defeated Franks, 193,342 to 143,606 (57% to 43%).
Bret Schundler's 20001 gubernatorial candidacy is the model for Lonegan (or Merkt if he can break away soon) to emulate if either one is to prevail against Chris Christie in the primary.
Here's the breakdown. The New Jersey Right to Life endorsement is worth at least 40,000 votes; Ginty in 2006 and John Matheussen in 2002, each received just over that amount in their failed bids. In 2008, Joe Pennachio received 74,546, so that means he picked up about 35,000 votes in counties where he had the "lines" as well as home county of Morris in addition to the votes (give or take 40,000) he received because he was endorsed by New Jersey Right to Life. Thus, the Right to Life endorsement is worth at least 20% of the vote in the primary and as high as 25%, Ginty's showing.
If Lonegan gets the New Jersey Right to Life endorsement, which is a very high probability, he should have at least 20% but more likely 25% of the GOP primary vote. If Lonegan can get Sabrin's voters (14%) Lonegan is now up to nearly 40% of the vote. Getting all of Sabrin's voters may be a stretch for Lonegan because he pulled out as a guest speaker at a Sabrin fundraiser, and then made signals he was embracing Pennacchio during the primary.
During last year's primary Senator Pennacchio supported "energy independence," a big government boondoggle if there ever was one, and other big government programs like SCHIP, the joint federal-state program that subsidizes the health insurance of low income children and their families. Sabrin's voters are going to wonder if Lonegan is a real fiscal conservative or another political opportunist, especially since the former Bogota mayor was at Pennacchio's primary night festivities.
Let's assume that Sabrin's voters will let bygones be bygones and vote for Lonegan; he would still be several percentage points short of beating Christie. Christie should get at least 43% of the vote (Franks in 2001) or as high as 46% of the vote (Zimmer in 2008). But if Lonegan can marshal both Pennacchio and Sabrin's supporters he would get 54% of the vote in June.
However, if this year's GOP primary is a blowout like Kean vs. Ginty in 2006, then Christie could get 55% or more of the primary vote in a four way race. In politics, a few months are a lifetime. From now to June 2, anything could happen. Right now, the odds favor the New Jersey GOP Establishment, again. But if Lonegan puts together the Schundler 2001 coalition and runs a flawless campaign, he could surprise the pundits and the GOP insiders who have anointed Chris Christie the GOP gubernatorial nominee.