SUMMIT –Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie easily won the Union County Republican Convention today — an outcome that everyone, including the four other candidates who competed, expected.
The lopsided result at the Lawton C. Johnson middle school, while not surprising, bolsters Christie’s frontrunner status in the Republican primary.
Christie got 294 votes to former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan's 83 while Assemblyman Rick Merkt had 9, Franklin Mayor Brian Levine had 5 and South Brunswick inventor David Brown got 4.
The convention was the first held by a county committee in the state, but it’s the second Republican county line awarded to Christie, who earlier this week won the favored ballot spot in Monmouth County by Chairman Joseph Oxley.
The only result truly in question today was whether Merkt or Levine would place fourth. Both, however, downplayed the importance of the result, and said it would have no effect on whether they continue their campaigns.
“Are we in it until the primary?” Merkt asked his Campaign Manager, Chris Venis, in response to a question from PolitickerNJ.com prior to knowing the voting results.
“We’re in it ‘til November,” Venis said.
About an hour before delegates voted, Levine said that a fourth place finish would, if anything, make him reconsider specific aspects of his campaign strategy, but that he would continue to run.
“I’m the eternal optimist, so I speak to a lot of people, I get as many votes as I can, and after this one I’ll see if it will keep me going along my road, or change my strategy a little
bit,” said Levine.
The first and second place totals were a matter of interpretation between the Christie and Lonegan camps, with Christie saying that the margin didn’t matter and Lonegan’s supporters insisting that anything short of a blowout here in Christie country would be a sign of weakness.
“A win is going to be a win here, no matter what the margin is,” Christie said this morning, about an hour before the voting commenced. “They’ve campaigned very hard here, sent out three pieces of mail, made some phone calls. So don’t let them kid you that they’re not trying hard here.”
Those mailers have been the subject of some controversy here in Union County and in the blogosphere. Local activist P. Kelly Hatfield, who ran for the Republican nomination for Congress last year, denounced a Lonegan mailer in which he compared his positions to Christie as containing false accusations. The Lonegan and a conservative blog supportive of him responded that the complaint was manufactured drama, challenging Christie supporters to point out falsehoods in the mailer.
Prior to the candidates’ speeches, without singling Lonegan out by name, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), a Christie supporter widely considered to be on his shortlist for Lieutenant Governor, read a message for all the gubernatorial candidates: “negative campaigning: leave it outside.”
In his five minute speech, Lonegan vehemently disagreed.
“I’ve been told that I run a negative campaign. If you think I’m running a negative campaign, that’s nothing. I’ll take it whatever they can dish out in this primary, because that’s going to prepare us for the big game come October, when Jon Corzine is going to go so negative you won’t believe it,” said Lonegan. “By the time I’m done with him, Jon Corzine is going to have to spend so much defending his record that he’s going to have to live in one of those COAH units.”
Lonegan used his speech to decry the past statewide failures of the moderate Republicans while noting that he consistently won reelection as mayor of a heavily Democratic town.
“They tell me that a conservative Republican cannot win statewide—that we must run moderates in every single election. They said we have a fine gentleman named Dick Zimmer. He got 33% of the vote in Bogota, and lost New Jersey,” said Lonegan. “They run another fine gentleman, Tom Kean, Jr., for Senate. He won 37% of the vote in Bogota, and lost the state.”
Kean, Jr,. who was sharing the stage with several other elected and party officials while Lonegan was speaking, looked up at Lonegan when he heard his name mentioned.
In his speech, Christie waved a pen and repeated his pledge to make frequent use of the line item veto if necessary, and lashed out against Democratic claims that, as a prosecutor, he doesn’t have the proper experience to be governor.
“This fall, you will hear Gov. Corzine say to you that he is not interested in turning over our government to a former federal prosecutor during dangerous economic times. Let me ask you this: how much worse can I do?”
Christie blamed the Department of Environmental Protection for bringing state business to a “grinding halt” and said that he would appoint a commissioner who would balance environmental and business concerns.
Lastly, he burnished his record as U.S. Attorney, which had put him in the spotlight so often for his public corruption prosecutions.
“Over the last seven years as your U.S. Attorney, I think you saw whether it was Sharpe James or Wayne Bryant, whether it was Jim Treffinger or Bob Janiszewski, whether it was Charlie Kushner or the corporate criminals sharing from their shareholders and employees, we held people to account,” he said.
Merkt, a former deputy attorney general, offered a nuanced take, saying that he would place high priority on who he picked for the State Supreme Court.
“If you want to change New Jersey, ladies and gentlemen, change the Supreme Court. And the next governor will,” he said. “If we don’t change the court, it doesn’t matter who the next governor is. He’s not going to be able to succeed.”
Levine argued that he’s a Republican who knows how to get Democrats to vote for him, and that his town bucked the national and statewide trend of losing jobs. He said that working with a Democratic council has taught him how to pick his fights.
“I’ve known when to stand up to Democrats and known when to work with them to get the proper initiatives through,” he said.
David Brown, an inventor from South Brunswick, said that he didn’t realize he had the ability to run for governor until he saw Sarah Palin on television while at a bar with friends. He said that Alaska’s ability to give its citizens dividends from oil profits gave him an idea: think up 100 new revenue generating ideas for the state, and distribute the profits to citizens.
“I want to thank Sarah Palin, because if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be standing before you today,” he said.