This year the New Jersey Republican Party has been floundering.
This cycle has been marked by few funds raised in some of the more competitive districts, scandals that have seemingly crippled candidates and infighting due to a lack of perceived support from county officials.
With Governor Chris Christie campaigning heavily around the country for his own presidential run, some are wondering if his absence is negatively impacting the overall state of New Jersey GOP. Others think that the issues in the party revolve around other factors while some believe that there is no underlying issue and the party is not disjointed.
According to Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison, Christie’s lack of effort to unite the party in his state is a central reason why the party might be on track to lose seats across the state.
“I think that from the outset of Governor Christie’s tenure as governor, there were great expectations in terms of his ability to lead the political party in New Jersey,” Harrison said. “I think you would be hard pressed to find a Republican in the state that would argue that he has lived up to those expectations.”
Harrison continued: “He has failed to support many of the down ballot candidates in some of the past state legislative elections and, obviously, this year. There were great expectations in terms of his ability to raise money for state and county Republican candidates and buy and large that has fallen short as well.”
According to Harrison, many of Christie’s responsibilities have fallen to Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick—who on Wednesday said he takes responsibility for Bergen’s Anthony Cappola fiasco—and Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. Recently, rutgers released a poll showing that Christie’s popularity as a presidential candidate was at a low point. Harrison thinks that the lack of excitement about him as leached into the reputation of other candidates.
“Lt. Gov Guadagno and Jon Bramnick are doing the best that they can but they are also facing the obstacle of Christie’s lack of popularity in the state which I think many Republicans and many donors view as a disadvantage to some of the assembly candidates this year,” she said.
According to Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39), Governor Christie has not been excessively absent despite his presidential aspirations.
“I have personally attended two fundraisers in the past several weeks where Governor Christie has come to fundraise for local New Jersey candidates,” she said of fundraisers for the Bergen County freeholder candidates and the Assembly Republican Victory Fund. “I haven’t seen any sort of real difference in the past two elections cycles that I’ve run in as compared to this one in terms of the Governor’s presence or Jon Bramnick’s presence or the Lt. Governor’s presence.”
According to Schepisi, the fundraising disparity on the two sides is a consideration when looking at the different campaigns of Republicans and Democrats.
“I think in general because we don’t have the same sort of Union/PAC money that the democrats have, what you have been seeing is a lot more of fellow Republican candidates trying to help out,” she said. “You have seen a lot of support for other candidates in other districts. Just everybody really stepping up to the plate to help each other out.”
Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton agrees with Schepisi that the Governor’s presidential aspirations have not had a negative impact on the races this year.
“I think the governor has said over and over again how, with technology the way it is, he is never more than a phone call away,” Layton said. “I think as far as his leadership is concerned within the state of New Jersey, the Republican Party has never been more successful in terms of raising money locally and in counties. The governor’s leadership has helped reelect republicans and make races more competitive locally. It is just political posturing by the democrats trying to make the Republican Party look fractured under the governor’s leadership.”
For Layton, Bramnick’s efforts this cycle have been “awesome” and he credits much of that success to Governor Christie.
“Jon has done a fantastic job raising money so that his candidates are in a position to win in districts 1 and 2 and 38,” Layton said. “I think that the governor has been part of that. That is big part of being a leader when it comes to the political side of things.”
Senator Michael Doherty (R-23)—who just yesterday endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016 over Chris Christie—agreed with Schepisi and Layton that the problem does not stem from Governor Christie’s absence. Unlike Schepisi and Layton, however, Doherty does acknowledge that the party is not as strong as it could be statewide.
“We were losing legislative races before he became governor, we didn’t pick up any seats when he was governor and I don’t really think it has anything to do with whether he is here or not,” Doherty said. “In my opinion it is the Republican leaders in the legislature needing to pick a key issue. I think the failing strategy has been before Christie, during Chrisite and will probably be in place after Christie leaves so I am not going to blame this one on the governor.”
For Doherty, that central issue that has the potential to unite voters across N.J. to vote Republican could be altering the school funding process so that urban areas like Hoboken where there has been an economic upturn do not unfairly benefit over suburban areas with a lower per-capita income.
“Frankly I am a little tired of the paper with 20 issues we are going to promote,” Doherty said. “If you have 20 issues you don’t have any issues. It is so watered down. That’s the big issue I have with some of the Republican leadership. We need to pick a big issue that unites voters. This has been the strategy ever since I have been in the legislature and all we have done is lose seats, lose seats, lose seats.”
According to Fernando Alonso, the almost-candidate from LD38, issues in counties like Bergen are indicative of a larger statewide problem. Alonso was mobilized to replace Cappola as one of the Republican candidates for the LD38 Assembly seat after a book that Cappola claims is “satire” of a number of groups including Jews and homosexuals was uncovered. After prohibitive costs lead Bergen’s Republicans to drop their petition to replace Cappola on the ballot, Alonso was left high and dry.
“I was there to help out but unfortunately there are a lot of county-wide Republicans who are really, really upset which is not good for the state party,” Alonso said.
Though Sen. Doherty agreed that the party is facing a rough spot, he believes the GOP in N.J. will eventually recover.
“I think the pendulum is swinging away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats,” said Doherty. “But, at the end of the day, we are going to have an opportunity to bounce back in the future, to present our case to the voters of New Jersey.”