With the race for the GOP presidential nomination still up in the air, New Jersey could be positioned to become a more significant primary battleground for Republicans than it has been in years past. Though experts’ opinions were divided as to whether the rise of super PAC money will keep would-be nominees in the race after their own fundraising dollars fall short, Republican insiders agreed that New Jersey could prove to be a bellwether for other Republican candidates if former Governor Chris Christie’s campaign hangs on through June and in-state supporters continue to stray to those lingering on in a PAC-funded war of attrition.
Rider University Political Scientist Ben Dworkin said that while New Jersey has not held a prominent place among state primaries in the past, 2016 will be just the second primary season since the Citizens United ruling and could see candidates continuing to jockey for position within the GOP after super Tuesday.
“Historically, a race will be decided by the time New Jersey’s June primary rolls around, but with so many candidates and super PACs that can back them long after their own campaign funds have dried up, we may well see multiple candidates with no clear leader heading into the late spring and early summer. This is one of those years when NJ’s primary actually might matter,” said Dworkin.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray disagreed entirely. When asked to rate the likely importance of the state for Republican hopefuls, he said that Iowa, New Hampshire and the south will have all but decided the nomination by the time delegates coalesce in New Jersey.
“Is there a number less than zero?” Murray asked. “I think while there is the potential for New Jersey’s primaries to be important if the race stays wide open like it is right now, more likely than not we’re going to have a clearer sense of who the nominee is going to be by the time June rolls around. and New Jersey will just simply be a rubber stamp on whoever that leader is.”
On the question of which Republican candidate a competitive garden state primary would favor, there has been considerable dissension in the ranks with respect to Christie. While state Senator Joseph Kyrillos (R-13), high-rolling Ocean County donor Lawrence Bathgate, former U.S. Ambassador Clifford Sobel, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and hedge-fund manager David Tepper have all announced they will back Jeb Bush, a separate home-turf mutiny could be underway among the NJGOP’s far right.
“”I will be running a full-blown delegate slate for Ted Cruz statewide, I’ll tell you that,” said former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. “If we get to New Jersey and we’re in the competitive primary that we hope we are, then I think it’s going to be very significant. I imagine we may still have three or four candidates at that point. It could be actually a turning-point state.”
“If you look at the polls four years ago today, I believe the frontrunners were Mike Huckabee and Michelle Bachman. And where did they go?” Lonegan added of current leaders Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Montclair State University Political Scientist Brigid Harrison said that the super PACs could conceivably buoy long-shot candidates and contribute to slightly more competitive congressional races in “districts that are slightly less gerrymandered than the state’s legislative districts.” Asked who could stand to splinter a still-standing Christie’s share of delegates at home, her answer was immediate: “Jeb Bush.”
One Republican source with a vested interest in Christie’s campaign said that he was not predicting a competitive primary in June, but acknowledged that the imbalance between Hillary Clinton’s decisive foothold in New Jersey and Republicans’ relative disarray reflected the national climate for each party’s contenders as New Hampshire approaches.
“That speaks to the lack of importance of New Jersey. You just haven’t seen a lot of statewide members who have said which candidate they’re backing or not backing,” the source said. “It won’t be decided by party bosses or insiders. And that’s kind of the way it should be. I feel bad, I don’t think that Democrats really have much of a choice. And I think Republican voters do have a choice and are going to exercise their choice a little more freely than Democrats, who are kind of getting Hillary shoved down their throat.”
Regardless of whether the New Jersey primary bucks its historical reputation as an also-ran, Dworkin said that many of those statewide members who have kept mum so far will keep playing it safe to stay in Christie’s good graces when he returns from the campaign trail.
“He will be governor for more than a year, even if this race doesn’t turn out the way he wants. So I think the party leadership will be cautious about going against their own governor if he’s still on the ballot.”