Without commentary on the merits of an issue that threatens the public financing of Steve Lonegan's campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, one thing is an absolute certainty: if the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission were to rule that he was ineligible for matching funds – and if the courts were to back up the decision – it could mean the end of the Lonegan campaign. Lonegan's strategy is dependent upon public financing that gives him $2 for every $1 he raises.
The ELEC investigation is the result of an Associated Press story that suggests the former Bogota Mayor was obligated to disclose the details of his relationship with Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax lobbying group for whom he served as New Jersey Director. State law requires candidates to disclose their connection to issue advocacy groups to avoid a conflict, such as avoiding spending limits that come with the public financing of gubernatorial elections.
The Lonegan campaign maintains that the candidate could not disclose AFP contributions, since he did not have access to their donor list. And they say that AFP was created and organized more than seven years ago, before Lonegan was involved.
There is good news and bad news for Lonegan when it comes to ELEC. It's helpful that the commission traditionally lacks extraordinary testicular fortitude. But it's potentially hurtful that the panel is hard to predict. In 2001, they allowed former U.S. Rep. Bob Franks to simply take over the campaign treasury of Gov. Donald DiFrancesco when he replaced him on the ballot, and then allowed Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler to change his mind and accept public financing.
In 2007, ELEC did make a difference in the race for State Assembly in the fourteenth district, where candidates were participating in a test program for publicly financed legislative races. When an independent group, Common Sense America, spent money advocating the defeat of Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), the law allowed the Democratic ticket to receive an extra $100,000 in public "rescue money." The consensus among pundits from both parties is that the rescue money played a key role in Democrat Wayne DeAngelo's 821 vote victory over Republican Thomas Goodwin.
While ELEC mulls the probe, Lonegan is without the benefit of matching funds he may have already qualified for.
Supporters of former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie seem to have divergent views on the politics of ELEC pushing Lonegan out of the race. Some say that Christie, who has not won an election since 1994 and has lost his last two Republican primaries, will benefit from a competitive race for the nomination. They also say that pushing Lonegan out without the chance to compete might make it more difficult for Christie to win the votes of Lonegan supporters in the general election. But others believe Christie would be better served by clearing the field (which assumes none of the other five GOP candidates will qualify for matching funds) and getting an early start to the general election against Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine.
If New Jersey were the sort of place where campaign finance regulators were influenced by political agendas, then it would be unlikely for Lonegan to lose his public financing. Democrats certainly receive no benefit from Christie avoiding a primary.
No matter what, the next few weeks ought to be interesting as Lonegan's fate is decided by the four ELEC Commissioners: 86-year-old former Assembly Majority Leader Albert Burstein (D-Bergen); former State Sen. Jerry Fitzgerald English (D-Union), 74, who served as Chief Counsel to Gov. Brendan Byrne; Republican Peter Tober, who was served as Senior Assistant Counsel to Governors Christine Todd Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco; and former Superior Court Judge Amos Saunders, a 76-year-old Passaic County Republican who spent 25 years on the bench.