Lonegan camp says GOP avoiding open conventions

Mainstream Republicans are avoiding holding county conventions to give former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie favorable ballot placement in the primary, according to Rick Shaftan, the chief strategist for Christie rival Steve Lonegan.

"This is exactly why we can't win elections in this state. They don't want any public involvement at all. It's a country club," said Shaftan. "So we never expected any kind of fair process from these guys, because they hate conservatives more than they want to beat Democrats."

Shaftan made the comments in response to Camden County Republican Chairman Rick DeMichele's decision to award Christie the organization line without holding a convention where county committee members could vote on the decision. The Camden GOP did hold a straw poll last month, where Christie won.

"Come on, it was a straw poll. The guy invites his friends and says it was a straw poll," said Shaftan.

Monmouth County Republican Chairman Joe Oxley last week awarded Christie the line without holding a convention where county committee members could vote, arguing that the party had in recent months failed to reach quorums at its meetings.

Oxley's endorsement came only after current and former GOP officials had a chance to meet with the leading candidates for Governor. The Christie campaign has released endorsements from most Monmouth GOP officials.

Christie did overwhelmingly win a convention in Union County on Saturday, however, where Lonegan competed for votes with county committee members. But Shaftan said that Republicans are actively seeking to avoid conventions where his underdog candidate could upset Christie, the favorite.

"The whole aim of the Christie campaign is to avoid any public discussion. This is why there is no public discussion in Monmouth. This is the whole [Gloucester County Republican Chairwoman Loran] Oglesby thing. She wants a convention and the Christie people don't want it. There are no conventions in Cape May, Ocean, and Burlington."

Lonegan and Christie will both appear tonight before the Essex County Republican screening panel tonight. Shaftan said that, while he expects that panel to go that way too, the Essex chairman, state Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove) has been more fair to the Lonegan campaign than others.

"We don't expect his support, but he's been straightforward with us," said Shaftan.

Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage said that his party is using the same endorsement process this year as it has for the last 30 years. Instead of holding a convention, the party holds a 30 day caucus process.

"If you look at the success of Cape May County over the years in part it's because of the demographics… But in addition, the quality of candidates seeking election and the quality of elected officials seeking reelection as endorsed by the CRRO has a track record that I think speaks volumes to the process of caucuses," said Von Savage.

DeMichele could not immediately be reached for comment.

Christie Campaign Manager Bill Stepien said that Christie had made joint appearances with Lonegan and other candidates at numerous GOP functions, and noted that there's a televised debate being taped by NJN on Friday.

"I think there was no more of a fair and open process than this past Saturday in Union County, where 400 plus people participated in the process and 74% of those people voted for us. In Camden County, all county committee people were, to my knowledge, invited to that straw poll, and 77% voted for us," Stepien said. "We're very happy with how open the process has been so far."

Update, 4:05pm:

A critic of Loran Oglesby issued a press release in response to Shaftan's comment about the effort by some Gloucester County Republicans to oust the sitting chairwoman.

Former freeholder candidate Phyllis Scapellato, who runs the Web site Itsnotloransparty.com, said that her group's effort has nothing to do with the gubernatorial campaign, and that one member is even a member of Republican gubernatorial Rick Merkt's campaign coordinator.

"The fact is members of our group support different candidates," said Scapellato. "It is unfair for Shaftan to run his mouth when some of us support Merkt, some Lonegan and some support Christie. I don't think he realizes the damage he just caused for his candidate here in Gloucester County. He just lost any chance he had at me deciding to back his candidate and I am sure Rick Merkt will thank him for it."

Update, 11:05am:

Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton says that his party will hold a convention, but that it has not set a date yet.

*Correction: Because of a typo, the first quote in the story was accidentally attributed to Steve Lonegan instead of his chief strategist, Rick Shaftan. It has been edited. Lonegan camp says GOP avoiding open conventions