Where have all the movement conservatives gone?

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

In 2009, under a big, airy tent in Clark, New Jersey, a group of ragtag Republican lawmakers and operatives gathered during a campaign rally to support of one of two primary candidates vying for that year’s highly-coveted Republican nomination for governor. The group was a sundry one, encompassing a range of anti-establishment or off-the-line Republicans running for various positions on various tickets, and the event was colorful, complete with supporters decked out in colonial garb and a guest appearance by Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known then as “Joe the Plumber.”

Likely the most meaningful detail, however, was the tent: a symbolic representation of the group’s togetherness, led by an enterprising Steve Lonegan.

It was the height of what might be considered New Jersey’s most recent conservative movement, the latest semi-concerted push by true-believing members of the state’s Republican Party to carve out their own niche in the field of Garden State politics. Railing against a liberal agenda in Trenton and an establishment wing of their own Republican party they considered too soft on the Democrats in charge, Lonegan had managed to marshal a campaign against the more moderate Chris Christie, then a U.S. Attorney and only a fledgling gubernatorial hopeful, against some odds.

Under the big tent on that night was a host of Republicans varying in political ideology but banded together in common cause: assemblypeople from Trenton, mayors of nearby towns, and veteran state Sens. like Mike Doherty (R-23), one of the state legislature’s most conservative members.

“Have we the will to end the inequality and discrimination of progressive taxation,” Lonegan cried at the podium at the time, to raucous applause. “My opponent in this primary, Chris Christie, and the Republican Party bosses, have said, ‘No, we won’t.’”

Of course, the party bosses were right, in the end. Lonegan lost to Christie by a nearly 12 percent margin, fumbling badly his chances by advocating a “flat tax” plan that turned out threatened to raise taxes on hundreds of New Jersey workers, a fact Christie used to bludgeon Lonegan’s image throughout the campaign. And yet, despite the loss, there was an element of success to the bid: political observers would be hard-pressed today to find a gathering of conservative movers and shakers as big and as united as the one that had gathered there in 2009.

Indeed, as interviews with some of the biggest conservative figureheads in the state show, the current state of movement conservatism in New Jersey — from Tea Party fringe groups in places like Morristown and Ocean County to right-of-center ideologues in the legislature like Doherty — is in no state at all.

“It’s a minimal presence,” Doherty says, referring to what he calls a truly unified conservative movement. “There’s very little activity.”

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Almost five years and a handful of campaigns later, efforts by conservative leaders the state to unify and advance agenda like the one that made possible Lonegan’s relative success on the campaign trail in 2009 have waned, affected by a sense of “demoralization” among a subculture otherwise eager to challenge what they see as a corruption of their own ideals at the hands of Democrats and establishment Republicans. While Tea Party, libertarian and more right-thinking independent candidates could be found on ballots up and down the state this last election cycle, few of those candidates’ campaigns turned out real challenges to their county-line and establishment-backed opponents — reflecting a fractured movement without the political clout needed to accomplish its own goals, according to observers.

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Lonegan and Doherty during their 2009 campaigns.

One of those campaigns was Lonegan’s own, not his 2009 gubernatorial campaign but an 11th hour bid in South Jersey’s third congressional district primary for the Republican nomination against fellow north Jersey businessman Tom MacArthur (R-3). A former Bogota mayor who’s built a sort of perennial candidate reputation for running near-consecutive statewide campaigns over the years — for the Republican nomination for governor in 2009 and in 2009, for the U.S. Senate during a special election in 2013 to replace the late Frank Lautenberg, and then last year in CD3 — Lonegan lost 40 percent to MacArthur’s 60 percent in that race.

A number of factors likely contributed to Lonegan’s failed candidacy, including running off-the-line for a South Jersey seat as a well-known North Jersey politician. But one of the main reasons Lonegan flamed out could also be lack of movement support, as fewer fellow conservatives came out to back his endeavor than in 2009, when he was able to organize a concerted front against candidates like Christie running with establishment backing.

In that sense, Lonegan’s congressional campaign emphasized what many conservatives see as among the bigger problems preventing any movement outside the party’s mainstream from gaining momentum.

“The fact is that you have these so-called Republican leaders, these county chairman, who control things like the party line, and they’re a bunch of political hacks who have very few real principles,” Lonegan bitterly explains, referring to the GOP leaders in Ocean and Burlington — the two counties making up CD3 — who actively went about recruiting the wealthier and more moderate MacArthur to avoid supporting him.

The effect: “Your rank-and-file, primary-voting conservative Republicans are basically demoralized and let down.”

Like many conservatives in the state, Lonegan places much of the blame for their sad state on the establishment base of the party, whose members have tended, in recent years, to hold an increasing monopoly over leadership positions in Trenton and in many county seats. Those positions allow them to maintain a line in local and statewide elections, handpicking candidates that ultimately serve to maintain a status quo and preventing more conservative candidates from gaining a foothold, activists say.

“Basically the way I look at it is it’s a club,” says Murray Sabrin, a political professor at Ramapo College and frequent statewide political candidate who most recently ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary during 2014’s U.S. Senate race. “And if you’re not a member of the club, they’re not going to promote you, and you’re going to have an uphill battle.”

Sabrin says he got into Republican Party politics in 1969 when he was “just a young person out of college, attracted to the principles of liberty, free enterprise, common sense foreign policy that doesn’t get us involved all over the world.” But he said the party and its goals have changed over the years, to the point where he doesn’t “see that being the main agenda of politicians here in New Jersey, or quite frankly all over the country, who have embraced a lot of the democratic party’s concepts.”

Those politicians include county chairs — even those in the state’s most conservative strongholds, like in Ocean, where Republican-voting residents tend to outnumber their Democratic counterparts almost three to one.

“Most if not all county chairs don’t seem to have the fire in the belly about what’s wrong with the country and what needs to change,” Sabrin said. “I think that’s the big dichotomy that I see in this state — the grassroots are concerned about the future, while the politicians are concerned about the elections.”

Rick Shaftan, a Republican campaign strategist who worked on a number of Lonegan’s campaigns over the years, agreed. He said a lack of strong leadership over the years has led to feelings of apathy among conservative voters and would-be candidates, to the point where many don’t bother getting out to the polls or jumping into the ring. Special county conventions where powerful organizations elect their own candidates quicker than potential challengers have a chance to assess the field help expedite the process.

“The perception among most conservatives, as well as many Republicans in this state, is that it’s just a hopeless situation,” Shaftan said. “Just move. Get out. Like the Bronx in 1974.”

But county organizations aren’t the only areas where party agenda gets made, and critics of the current iteration of it are quick to point out who else deserves blame. In a state where the chief executive post ranks among the most powerful in the country, New Jersey’s governor is seen as retaining considerable control over the decision-making apparatus in Trenton, helping to craft legislation and set the bar for others to follow — including underlings in his own party, Shaftan says.

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Ask almost any true-believing conservative who they see as at least partly responsible for their plight and they’ll tell you: it’s Chris Christie’s fault.

“The leadership of the New Jersey Republican Party have just been treated like a bunch of cheap hookers that have been thrown to the curb after being used, and you can quote that,” Lonegan, again ripping into the party’s establishment, says.  “In their conduct, in the way they’ve been used by the Christie Administration to advance his political agenda — and you know what, it’s pathetic because they’re all rolling around hoping to be thrown some crumbs if the guy finally makes it to the White House. That’s exactly what it is.”

Christie has taken serious flak in from conservatives like Lonegan in recent years for what they see as the governor’s outright neglect of his own party’s welfare as it struggle to maintain relevance in a state largely controlled by its Democratic majority. An upwardly-mobile politician who’s been publicly mulling a presidential run for large part of his career, critics say Christie has too often chosen personal brand-building over party-building in his leadership role, of late by continuing to devote precious time to exploring a national campaign ahead of the 2016 party primaries.

The latest indicator that he’s serious about a run came just this week, when Christie announced the establishment of a leadership PAC, called “Leadership Matters for America,” with himself as co-chair.

“He’s a vampire Republican,” said Seth Grossman, an Atlantic County Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial primary. “He draws his strength by sucking the life out of the rest of the party.”

This is true for many agitators despite originally having had great hope for the Republican, a former U.S. Attorney who, after clinching a victory over Lonegan in 2009, ascended his throne in Trenton proclaiming that “change has arrived” and that the weak-kneed decision-making of executive’s past would come to an end with his rule, they say. But four years later, they argue little progress has been made in shoring up the state’s problems, which include a myriad of financial and economic issues, or in strengthening their own party.

Case in point: During his 2013 re-election campaign, when Grossman took on Christie just before the scandal known as Bridgegate was to begin in earnest, the incumbent was seen as having put little time into supporting down-ballot elections, despite a number of competitive campaigns and the entire Senate and Assembly being on the ballot with him. That year, the NJGOP failed to add even a single seat under Christie — a flunk-out which privately drew the ire of fellow Republicans who saw his re-election as an important opportunity to bolster the party’s presence in Trenton.

In a somewhat shocking move, it was Doherty who earlier this month gave voice to these criticisms when he blasted the governor over his State of the State speech, which many saw as an attempt to pander to a national audience ahead of the 2016 primaries. On of the more hardened-conservative members of the legislatures, Doherty has lashed out publicly against the governor before, though likely not to the same extent.

“I think from the early days of his governorship, the idea of him running for president took him away from his calling, to be a great man and great governor. And his true calling in life, at least what he sold to all of us and the people of New Jersey, was that he was going to fight the corruption and break up the status quo. And unfortunately, I just don’t see the results,” Doherty said at the time, adding that Christie had “put in place a structure that will lead to a continuation of [that status quo].”

Doherty said the move quietly earned him praise from fellow Republicans who feel the same. One of those Republicans was Shaftan, who told PolitickerNJ the move was a “sign of real leadership.”

“So few people stood up to Christie,” he said. “I mean, what Doherty did is incredibly bold and a sign of real leadership.”

Ultimately, Shaftan says the lack of leadership at the top has impacted opinion at the bottom, where conservative voters — which he considers “most normal thinking people” — find themselves fed up with conservative-unfriendly policies perpetuated by Christie and others.

“You know, people say Christie was our best hope here, but they looked around and see nothing has changed, and think, OK I’ll move somewhere else that happens not to get snowstorms in February,” Shaftan said. “What’s he do to turn the state around? I don’t know. Does anybody know? The state was better off under John Corzine.”

“Shame on these guys. Shame on them,” Lonegan adds. “They’ve let down the Republican base, they’ve let down the conservative base. My prediction is as a result of the gutting of the Republican Party, the party will probably lose even more seats in the Assembly in November.”

But Grossman, who received little support from this conservative wing of the party during his own challenge in 2013, said it goes deeper than that. He runs a blog at www.libertyandprosperity.org, where he says a frequent proverb reads, “If you want to see where the state is headed, just look at Atlantic City” — a jab at the seaside gaming mecca’s ongoing economic implosion, brought on by a shrinking property tax base and a decline in its cash cow casino industry.

“It’s not that we disagree a little bit, it’s that the whole premise is off,” he said. “Remember going back to that 2009 primary. Steve Lonegan made one mistake after another and still ended up with about 42 percent of the vote, and that I don’t think has really changed. So you’ve had about 42 percent of Republicans in New Jersey really are fed up — and not just with Christie, but with Tom Kean, Christie Whitman. Christie’s just the latest. “

All agreed that the cycle of poor leadership has hurt conservative bona-fides in the state, leaving the party fractured and adrift.

“It’s been a little problematic for Republicans legislators to come up with a theme to promote. I view it as like a boat in the middle of the lake, you have to keep the motor on going in a certain direction,” Doherty said. “You have to pick an issue, any issue, and promote it. You can’t just be an echo of the governor all the time.”

And the issue isn’t likely to change soon, says Lonegan, even if the party were to make a course correction: “The problem with the next gubernatorial election is that his governor has done such a thorough job of gutting the party, that it’s going to be hard for a Republican to win coming off this administration, which has again, increased debt, increased the size of the regulatory burden,” he said

“We have a liberal Supreme Court that’s going to codify liberal legislation. We have a school funding system that’s ripping off suburban taxpayers in this state. And we’re driving out businesses. So what’s the message for a Republican who’s going to run? Hey, I’m not going to be like Chris Christie, elect another Republican, even though I’m going to have these same so-called Republican leaders, these same Republican legislators, but we’ll be different this time? How do they do that?” he asked.

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Indeed, if conservative candidates could band together and find the right funding — as they did in Hunterdon when Doherty ran against the establishment’s candidate with Lonegan at the top of the ticket — activists say the movement could have a fighting chance in the Garden State. Conservatives make up a huge swath of the voting populace, Shaftan and others say, and a candidate with the right message could do well when buttressed by a strong support structure. But they’re quick to note that that sort of support has become a rare staple for establishment agitators in the state, and worse, years of liberal decision-making by leaders of both parties have blurred what it means to be a Republican here.

“That’s the problem,” Shaftan says. “You need to create some kind of legacy to help build the party. And you need candidates. So what do you do? And that’s what faces Republican in 2017. Do they run as a supporter of what Christie’s done? And then the question is: what has he done? The state’s broke, Atlantic City is a mess. What do they run on?”

Doherty has had a rocky relationship in Trenton. He told PolitickerNJ in January that the goveror had "missed his calling."

Doherty has had a rocky relationship in Trenton. He told PolitickerNJ in January that the goveror had “missed his calling.”

Doherty, a U.S. military veteran who some have prodded in recent years toward a statewide run, said part of the problem is a lack of funding for conservative-minded candidates, who find themselves marginalized in a party of Wall Street bankers and big business moguls.

“You would think pro-business groups would be big funders for conservative Republicans, but it’s really not the case,” he said.

Doherty’s conservative politics place him in a super-minority in the legislature that includes assemblymen like Jay Webber (R-26), a Harvard Law graduate, and Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25), once dubbed by New Jersey Monthly Magazine Trenton’s “Most Conservative” politician. But despite the presence of such members, the Essex County native said there’s still a “vacuum” when it comes to finding conservative figures willing to stand on conservative principles in the face of change.

Webber declined to be interviewed for this article.

Still, Doherty said there is hope for the movement, even if things look dismal at the moment. Conservative candidates have achieved other minor success in the state over the years, including in 2010, when former Highland Park Mayor Anna Little rode a national wave of Tea Party activism and anti-establishment sentiment to beat an NJGOP-back Diane Gooch for the Republican nomination for congress in CD6.

Little ultimately lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone in the general, but that race, along with his 2009 campaign with Lonegan, proved that “once you get in the pool and start swimming around, you can make great progress as a conservative candidate.”

“It was the perfect circumstance,” Doerty said. “We had a line in Hunterdon County, Lonegan was running for the nomination, we had a freeholder candidate, and we were able to cobble that all together and give folks a place to go. I think I would’ve been a dead man by myself. but because we all worked together, we were able to peel off votes, and that allowed me to win.”

Lonegan has since moved on to out-of-state pastures, and said his congressional campaign last year will likely be his last in New Jersey. He blames establishment Republicans for creating an environment where conservatives “just aren’t welcome.”

“I don’t know if [conservatives] are too small in number, but they’ve been let down so many times by these guys,” Lonegan said, striking a more nihilistic tone.

Where have all the movement conservatives gone?