John McCann’s struggle to raise money for his challenge to freshman Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer after years of floating his name as a potential candidate is reminiscent of another Bergen County congressional campaign.
In 1984, Republicans thought they could beat freshman Rep. Bob Torricelli. Torricelli had won the seat two years earlier, ousting three-term Republican Harold Hollenbeck by seven points in Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election. The district had become more Democratic after redistricting, and the 31-year-old Torricelli was able to leverage national contacts – he worked for Vice President Walter Mondale and managed Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign in Illinois – to outspend the Republican incumbent.
Heading into his re-election, Torricelli faced two potential obstacles: Reagan was now a popular incumbent heading the GOP ticket, and a new map ordered by federal judges after tossing the old one, was more favorable for the Republicans.
Bergen Republicans had a deep bench of talent, but they decided to go with a relatively unknown, Neil Romano, who had served as executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee in the late 1970’s.
Romano showed up at the party screening committee and promised that he would self-finance a run against Torricelli. He said he had personal money, that his family had considerable wealth, and that he had rich friends who had already pledged their support. He pledged to assemble the kind of warchest needed to beat Torricelli without the Bergen GOP.
It was a scam. Romano lacked any fundraising prowess, and the self-funding stuff never happened. He raised just $89,166; Torricelli raised $518,869.
Reagan carried the district by nearly 47,000 votes, but Romano ran more than 60,000 votes behind Reagan; Torricelli beat him 63%-47%.