The results of a two-day fight over the Republican state chairmanship will have a clear impact on next year’s gubernatorial primary and potentially on the 2024 presidential contest.
The winner of the race was Michael Lavery, who is one of gubernatorial candidate Doug Steinhardt’s closest friends. He defeated Bob Hugin, who had the support of the other GOP gubernatorial candidate, Jack Ciattarelli, and the remnants of former Gov. Chris Christie’s team.
Hugin, who spent $36 million of his own money to run for U.S. Senate two years ago, began making calls in search of state committee votes on Sunday and entered the race early Monday morning.
Lavery had already lined up commitments to secure the seat in a vote that was scheduled for Tuesday evening.
This was not a sudden vacancy.
Steinhardt’s run for governor had been widely anticipated for more than a year. It was no surprise that he would step down as state GOP chairman to run, triggering a special election to fill the post.
The timing was worked well for Steinhardt. He called a state committee meeting on Thursday, accommodating a bylaws requirement for a five-day notice, and then announced his candidacy for governor on Friday. That allowed Lavery to quickly launch his own campaign.
Several state committee members cited the late start of Hugin’s campaign. Had Hugin launched his campaign earlier, saying that he wanted the job if it opened so that he could begin raising money for the general election – in his speech on Tuesday evening, he promised to raise $1 million for county and local campaigns next year — the outcome might easily have been different.
“Scrambling is not a plan and state committee members were understandably attracted to a plan rather than a scramble,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
There are some take-away from Lavery’s 24 to 18 win over Hugin:
1. Jack Ciattarelli picked a fight he didn’t need to have. Ciattarelli expended political capital in a bid to block a Steinhardt ally from controlling the Republican State Committee for the next six months. The state party has little influence – and even less statutory authority – over a gubernatorial primary. If Ciattarelli becomes the GOP candidate for governor, he’ll get to pick the new state chair next June.
2. Doug Steinhardt built strong relationships with his state committee. He established good will through what was essentially strong constituent service in his dealings with the 42-member New Jersey Republican State Committee. That paid some dividends to Lavery.
3. Chris Christie no longer controls the New Jersey Republican party. Make no mistake, the former governor was involved in the Hugin campaign. His top aide, Bill Palatucci, was making aggressive calls to whip votes. Nearly three after leaving office, Christie doesn’t have as much influence with party leaders who are no longer afraid of him. And something that came up frequently from state committee members: there is enduring resentment towards Christie for using the state party to fund his own ambitions and not to boost GOP candidates.
Christie’s inability to retain influence over his home-state party apparatus could affect his hope to seek the presidency against in 2024.
“You can’t count Christie in or out at this point, but the lesson here is he can no longer take for granted that he will be able to walk into any room of New Jersey Republicans and they’ll snap to attention,” Rasmussen said. “If he wants something, he’ll need to out-organize and outwork his rivals, just like everyone else.”
4. Mike Lavery is well-liked. The low-key former Hackettstown mayor built his own statewide relationships during his five-month stint as state chairman in 2017 and that brought credibility to his return bid. His promise to keep the state party neutral during the primary assuaged concerns from some voters who might prefer Ciattarelli.
5. Ocean County Republicans are deeply divided. Ocean is the motherload of Republican primary votes and appears on the verge of an intra-party civil war between county chairman Frank Holman III and his predecessor, George Gilmore. Ocean split its state committee votes: Freeholder Virginia Haines nominated Hugin; former Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher backed Lavery, Gilmore’s nephew, after Holman and another former county chairman, Joseph Buckalew, tried to persuade him to vote for Hugin.
6. Not all county chairs control or influence their state committee members. Eight counties either split their two votes between Lavery and Hugin or voted contrary to the wishes of the county chair. Watch for some changes to the state committee in 2021, when county chairs recognize the need to install loyalists in those positions.
7. Bob Hugin didn’t fully appreciate the process of a 42-voter race. Hugin thought that his message – that he’d build a stronger, better-funded Republican Party would matter more than it did. He misunderstood some relationships, missed some signals on who was gettable and who was not, and didn’t enter the race with a clear plan on how to win. In at least one case, Hugin offended state committee members by going through a county chair and not to them directly. Most importantly, he just got into the race too late. Still, he could wind up as state chairman in six months if Ciattarelli wins the primary and his desire to help build the GOP – especially in advancing the need to recruit women candidates – is undeniable.
8. Tom Kean, Jr. waded into a skirmish unnecessarily. The Senate Minority Leader had initially indicated his support for Lavery, but then switched when Hugin entered the race. Hugin is a longtime friend who contributed $100,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a big player in Kean’s recent House campaign. Now, as Kean considers a 2022 rematch against Rep. Tom Malinowski – and hopes for a district that includes more Republican areas like Warren County, he’ll need to retool his relationship with Steinhardt and Lavery.
9. Bill Stepien has more influence among New Jersey Republicans than Chris Christie. Donald Trump’s campaign manager, who ran both of Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns, is Steinhardt’s top strategist. While Lavery will keep the state party neutral, Stepien is now positioned to help get the state GOP general election-ready, perhaps with operatives with a proven ability to deliver results.