Wednesday, May 17, 2006

NJ Conservatives haven't yet found the next Schundler

A few weeks ago, I published two pieces in New Jersey -- one in the Newark Star Ledger (the state's biggest newspaper), and the other on (the state's most influential political media outlet).

I'll post the first piece momentarily.

About this second piece: too many people in New Jersey apparently think that 2006 is 2001. They look at the GOP primary for the US Senate nomination and they see a conservative outsider challenging a GOP Establishment-backed moderate conservative, and they automatically think that the setting is ripe for another conservative upset.

They couldn't be wronger, and it was important that somebody put on the record what's different about 2006. As the guy who worked that 2001 gubernatorial primary race as Bret Schundler's campaign manager, I was uniquely qualified to be the guy to explain the differences.

So here's the second piece, which was published in the Star Ledger under the title "NJ Conservatives haven't yet found the next Schundler:"

In recent weeks, some observers of New Jersey politics have suggested that this year’s Republican primary contest for the U.S. Senate looks just like the GOP primary for governor five years ago: A moderate Republican backed by the party establishment faces off against a plucky conservative who hopes to pull off a stunning upset.

In reality, the two contests couldn’t be more different: The candidates are different, the resources they bring to the table are different and the campaign environment is different. The Senate challenge mounted this year by conservative John Ginty against party favorite Tom Kean Jr. bears little resemblance to the campaign waged by Bret Schundler against party heavyweights Donald DiFrancesco and Bob Franks. 2006 is not 2001.

Start with the campaign environment. Campaigns are not conducted in a vacuum; they are conducted inside a framework beyond the control of the candidates. The office to be contested, what matters most to the voters, media attention, fundraising dynamics, recent voting history, who’s in power, and a host of other factors combine to create the environment in which the campaign will be waged.

The 2001 primary was a contest to select the nominee for governor; the 2006 primary is a contest to select the nominee for U.S. Senator. Anyone who follows New Jersey politics knows the governor’s race is the one that gets all the action. Media attention is much higher in a governor’s race than in a race for the U.S. Senate; consequently, the challenge Ginty will face in building support for his candidacy will be a much more difficult challenge than the one faced by Schundler. Ginty’s campaign will be forced to rely far more heavily on paid advertising to communicate to primary voters.

Further, at the time of the 2001 primary, the GOP had held the governor’s mansion for 16 of the previous 20 years. That created the opportunity for a powerful "change vs. more of the same" theme - an opportunity the Schundler campaign seized and used against DiFrancesco and then Franks, who had been key players in the state party’s dominance of New Jersey politics. Ginty will not be able to use that theme against Kean.

Voter concerns in 2001, too, were very different. That contest took place before 9/11, and I can’t recall anyone talking about homeland security; property taxes, education and Parkway tolls were the key issues. In each case, Schundler was more in tune with GOP primary voters than either DiFrancesco (who as acting governor was the consensus favorite of the party establishment until he dropped out of the race) or Franks (who stepped forward to carry the establishment’s banner after DiFrancesco’s withdrawal). But in 2006, the issues matrix is totally different, and Kean is far closer to primary voters than either DiFrancesco or Franks were. Ginty will not be able to draw as clear a contrast.

Beyond the different environments are differences in the candidates involved, and the assets they bring to the table.

In 2001, Schundler’s most important asset was the fact that he was Bret Schundler. He was a political rock star. Brilliant, confident, courageous and decisive, he was a darling of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and national conservative and GOP circles. He was a leader people were willing to follow.

From that initial and fundamental asset flowed another: Schundler’s nine-year reign as mayor of Jersey City. This did two things for his gubernatorial candidacy, strategically speaking. First, it offered a quick and easy rebuttal to the argument that he was "too conservative" to win a statewide race in New Jersey (Jersey City is 69 percent Democrat by registration, against just 6 percent Republican; if he could win there, he could win anywhere). This was a major selling point to GOP primary voters.

Second, his tenure as mayor gave him a governing record on which he could run. It made him credible as a potential chief executive. He had led a city and managed a government. He had cut taxes, slashed the crime rate and held the line on spending, all by (forgive the cliché) thinking outside the box.

That governing record gave him a powerful positive message - "The Jersey City Success Story" - which, in turn, created two more key assets: troops and money. For years, Schundler had cultivated Republican leaders, willingly using his political influence on their behalf. Just as important, Schundler had cultivated key grass-roots leaders. Consequently, the "Schundler Army" existed long before he ever announced his candidacy - they were just waiting for orders.

But most voters, even primary voters, are not activists. So while Schundler’s support among activists was relatively high, his support among GOP primary voters would, in the end, be a function of communicating to them. And communication requires money.

Perhaps too few now remember the night in February 2001 when Schundler finance chairman Larry Bathgate - a leading member of the state Republican establishment - packed the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel with 800 donors. Together, Bathgate and Schundler ensured that the primary campaign would be fully funded, to the tune of nearly $6 million. That money allowed for a precisely targeted advertising campaign aimed at the most likely GOP primary voters.

John Ginty, to put it mildly and charitably (I have known Ginty since that 2001 primary campaign, and consider him a friend), does not have these assets.

The political environment is different. The candidates are different. The assets they bring to the campaign are different. 2006 is not 2001.


Post a Comment

<< Home