Doug Steinhardt’s decision to step down as New Jersey Republican State Chairman to run for governor will likely trigger a special election to fill the remaining six months of his term.
A top Steinhardt ally, former GOP State Chairman Michael Lavery, is seeking the interim post, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
“I thank Doug Steinhardt for his leadership as Chairman and the momentum he has created for New Jersey Republicans headed into 2021,” Lavery said. “I’m pleased to have the overwhelming support of NJGOP State Committee members to serve as the next Chairman, and I look forward to continuing Doug Steinhardt’s good work.”
But Republican leaders allied with another gubernatorial candidate, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, are not prepared to let the Steinhardt campaign control the state GOP apparatus during the primary.
One party leader cautioned Republicans to be careful how the new chair is selected.
“I absolutely think it should be an open, competitive process,” said Gloucester County GOP Chair Jacqueline Vigilante, who has not yet endorsed a candidate but is widely considered a Ciattarelli supporter. “I’ve seen enough organizations elections that are pre-ordained to the exclusion of other qualified candidates.”
Steinhardt is expected to leave the state chairmanship without making his two picks for the Republican side of the Congressional Redistricting Commission.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) each get two appointments to the panel that will redraw New Jersey’s 12 congressional districts next year, in time for the 2022 mid-term elections.
Earlier this year, Steinhardt named all five GOP members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
The state GOP vice chair, Lynda Pagliughi, will serve as acting state chair. Pagliughi has held that role several other times when Republicans were between state chairmen.
Republicans have two state committee members from each county, which makes 22 votes the magic number to secure the chair position.
Neither Ciattarelli nor Steinhardt have the support of enough county chairs right now to guarantee their pick would win a special election.
One option mentioned by several Republican leaders would be a compromise candidate, like Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon. But allies of Hanlon say she was not a candidate.
Hanlon has not taken sides in the gubernatorial race and is familiar with the workings of the state party as a former State Committeewoman.
The winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary will traditionally name the new state GOP Chair.
Lavery, a former mayor of Hackettstown, served as state chairman for five months in 2017. He was picked for the post by then-Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who defeated Ciattarelli in the gubernatorial primary.
Lavery is the is the nephew of former Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore.
The state GOP chairman post has been a launching pad for statewide candidates before.
Nelson Gross resigned as Republican State Chairman in January 1970, just before announcing that he would challenge U.S. Senator Harrison Williams.
Gross had used the post to clear the field, pushing State Sen. Joseph Maraziti (R-Boonton) out of the primary in exchange for the leadership role on congressional redistricting in 1972.
Maraziti’s map forced two Democratic congressmen from Hudson County into a primary and he created a new district for himself that extended from western Morris into Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties.
In 1992, Assemblyman Bob Franks (R-New Providence) resigned as GOP State Chairman to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. His successor was state GOP vice chair Virginia Littell.
The 2012 Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown), served as Republican State Chairman from 2001 to 2004.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) led the NJ GOP from 2009 to 2011 and was the Republican candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th district in 2018.