“No one gets out of here alive” – Jim Morrison (who ironically was never actually associated with Bergen County)
BERGEN – It’s difficult to find a metaphor of sufficient misery for what happened to Bergen Democrats up here last year, unless you consider Bergen Republicans this year.
Having manhandled Dems two cycles in a row, Bergen Republicans woke up last Wednesday morning nursing hangovers born of downbeat barstools more than Election Night euphoria.
They hadn’t self-referenced that word in a while: a senate candidate and three county level seats.
They set about wondering what went wrong and started considering every conceivable culprit starting with a low turnout election – 26% – lower even than what most of them anticipated would be in the range of 30.
Certainly there were those who blamed LD 38 candidate Freeholder John Driscoll, who they said never managed to find his own message.
The GOP blamed incumbent state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), who appeared mild-manned and professorial throughout the contest before dropping an 11th-hour ad in which he unfairly (in Republicans’ view) blamed Driscoll for being part of a GOP brain trust that wanted to hatch a $400 million Xanadu re-do on the backs of taxpayers.
There were those who blamed Bergen County Republican Organization Chairman Bob Yudin, who they said didn’t make the GOP message as simple as “Bergen County Executive cut government by 30%, elect Republicans to help her.”
They blamed what GOP sources acknowledged was an effective Democratic Party You Tube video then network TV ad highlighting Republican Clerk Liz Randall’s work attendance record.
There were those who blamed Christie, who they said created enough associative presence in LD 38 to energize public sector union households in a low turnout election year, and – with his own micromanaging eye to 2013 – interfered too much.
Then there were those – like Christie – who publicly bad-mouthed the map, which for all the hoopla about a competitive 38th District, still preserved a Democratic advantage of 12,000 votes in an election that Driscoll lost by 2,000 votes.
But the self-analysis went deeper than any of that, dead-ending at the mostly unpalatable idea that everyone shared a piece of the blame.
The Bergen GOP, of course, suffered its own inherent factionalism – state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-39) and Yudin on one side – Bergen County Executive Kathe Donovan and consultant Alan Marcus on the other. Those players were willing to acknowledge the obvious organizational pratfalls of trying to hold together a 70-municipality county made of 1,200 county committee people, each of whom believes he knows what’s best for the party.
But the presence of national Republican rock star Christie didn’t help deliver organizational coherence so much as add another dimension of angst, party sources told PolitickerNJ.com.
Christie generated money for LD 38, certainly, but ultimately the party didn’t properly use that money, party sources complained.
“Is it great to have six pieces of mail? Sure, it is,” said a source close to the operation. “But if you’re not using that mail properly, you’re going to have six pieces of unread mail sitting in someone’s mailbox – which is what happened in the 38th.
“Six mailers is overkill,” the source added. “Money is important but there is a point at which you have to use what money you have effectively or you’re wasting it.”
“Robocalls are just bringing out the opposition’s base – and annoying people,” said another source.
Finally the connecting points between already divided local operations and the front office – two words some Bergen Republicans came to dread – added up to a mechanical failure.
Sources make it clear it wasn’t Christie on policy.
They love him on policy.
But Bergen political combat thrives around the county’s own local egos who don’t appreciate the possibility that at any moment Christie might decide to get involved, even very involved, which he did – suddenly, groaned one source – after exhausting a presidential storyline in mid-September.
Invested in the Driscoll campaign, the governor’s personal absence was sometimes worse than his presence.
Sources told PolitickerNJ.com that the enforcer during the campaign was frequently a gubernatorial staffer (on leave) doing his or her own Christie overlord imitation.
In the face of what they grumblingly started referring to as Christie’s kiddy corps, homegrown Bergen pols started exchanging grim looks, especially when Freeholder candidate Joel Brizzi received an earful from a Christie underling, and then had to endure a call from Christie.
The tactics produced a chilling effect among some of the county committee members who felt more like game pieces than respected party stewards.
If they did feel that, it was because they weren’t used to aggressively driving out the vote, was the retort.
If they had ever done aggressive, it wasn’t recently.
“I’m in my mid-fifties,” said one source, “and at county GOP functions I’m convinced I was the baby in the room.”
Sources close to Christie operatives said the governor was not in a position to apologize for his role in the failed campaigns, starting with Driscoll’s. It wasn’t just that the governor raised the serious money for these races up here.
But while on that subject, Christie-cans were happy to make the point that the message should not have had to be spoken out loud to Bergenites: if you want state committee dollars, you consider the governor’s rules, otherwise you can all go back to being ruled by Joe Ferriero, the heavy-handed, locally grown Bergen County Democratic Organization chairman.
These same Christie allies were just as confident breaking down the previous two election cycles to debunk any local county organization chest-thumping about who was mostly responsible for GOP wins.
That was Christie at the top of the ticket in 2009, whose U.S. Attorney’s Office had put a hangdog Ferriero on the front page of the Bergen Record in time for the election, and up-swelled the terrain for a little-known candidate from Paramus to snag a freeholder seat.
And, yes, it was independent Republican Donovan, an Obama tidal wave-tested brand from 2008 – not the rusted GOP county superstructure – at the top of the winning ticket in 2010.
That left Party Chairman Yudin, the most visible single culprit to some.
Hearing the grumbling from within party ranks – loudest among the old former Chairman Rob Ortiz wing of the party – that the chairman must go, his defenders insist it’s bigger than him, pointing to all the other organizational mismatches.
“Bob took this county over when we were in danger,” a source told PolitickerNJ.com. “The last chairman (Ortiz) had told us ‘don’t expect any money, raise your own.’ Now our rent is paid for, we have a paid executive director and regular functions. We don’t raise as much as the Democrats, but we raise enough to be credible. Why anyone would want to take Bob down puzzles everyone.”
The Christie team’s eagerness to assume control, and the political animal impulses of the governor, blunted the instincts of an effective party chairman who is already in his own intra-party tug of war, another source said.
Two years from the governor’s re-election, while distributing blame in different degrees, all sides acknowledge the mechanics need to get better here.
In the face of deepened factionalism, with the already complex political environment complicated by the
governor’s office, sources say Bergen Republicans plan a post-Thanksgiving Day meeting in which all of the key players on the verge of trying to checkpoint U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) 2012 re-election will sit down, fess up, and figure out what to do next time.
“We need to realize,” said a source close to the action, “that the elections are important enough next year that we all need to cut the crap.”
Looking inward, they could console themselves that at least they still control the county – 5-2 – even if it hurt to see the Democrats upright again.
Knowing it can’t happen, given the exisiting dynamic between governor and county chairman, “We need a Joe Ferriero – without the corruption,” one source nevertheless told PolitickerNJ.com, only half-joking.