The nascent contest for next year’s gubernatorial election heated up just a little on a Tuesday night conference call when Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt was questioned about his use of the state party to advance his possible challenge to Gov. Phil Murphy in 2021.
Patrick Torpey, the Hunterdon County GOP Chairman, raised concerns about a possible conflict between Steinhardt’s current post and his interest in a statewide run.
“It’s important that the Republican State Committee remains impartial and neutral as it relates to the governor’s race in 2021, especially since the state party chairman has taken steps to indicate that he’s running for governor,” Torpey told the New Jersey Globe today.
Some of the pushback is coming from Republicans who prefer former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough), the only announced gubernatorial candidate.
As state chairman, Steinhardt has built bully pulpit to bombard Murphy with attacks on multiple fronts. The job comes with a staff and a social media presence that could help him build support for a gubernatorial run, and unlike Ciattarelli, anything he does as state chairman is not charged to the public financing cap if he does decide to take on Murphy.
Steinhardt’s aggressive stance on the Democratic governor is making him some friends.
“He’s out there fighting for the Republican Party. He’s fighting against Murphy,” said Lynda Pagliughi, the longtime state party vice chair and GOP state committeewoman from Cape May County. “He’s a good chairman. He’s fighting for our fights.”
Torpey’s concern was backed up by another party leader, Gloucester County GOP Chair Jacci Vigilante.
“We’ve got a lot of important races between now and 2021 that need support and undivided attention from the New Jersey GOP,” Vigilante said.
Bergen County Republican Chairman Jack Zisa praised Steinhardt’s role in energizing the state Republican Party.
“I think that Doug has done a fine job as chairman. We are in a blue state and things aren’t always easy,” Zisa said. He’s done a great deal to enhance the party. He’s raised a lot of money.”
Bergen Republicans are honoring Steinhardt at an event on July 27, a signal that the state chairman could land the support of the state’s largest county.
While the state chairmanship is what secured a spot for the former Lopatcong mayor on the gubernatorial short list, it also comes with some risk. Steinhardt owns legislative redistricting –he named all five members to the reapportionment commission earlier this year – and could face the wrath of GOP leaders who award organization lines if they seek financial help from the state party and walk away empty-handed.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who is also mulling a run for governor, also has a statewide platform to hurl grenades at Murphy without being accused of diverting GOP resources to promote himself.
One of the gripes some Republicans had during the eight years Chris Christie served as governor was that the state party apparatus was built around him personally and not to help GOP candidates win legislative seats or county and local offices.
Vigilante suggested that Steinhardt needs to share the stage with other Republicans. She pointed to Claire Gustafson, a former Collingswood school board member who is mounting an uphill race against Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) in South Jersey.
“New Jersey GOP resources just on social media could raise her profile,” she said. “I don’t see that effort being made.”
Steinhardt would likely step down as state chairman to run for governor, although there’s nothing in the party by-laws that would require him to do so.
It’s also not clear what Steinhardt’s timeline is. With the U.S. Census that will determine a new legislative map delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly more likely that next year’s primary election will get pushed to September.
The state GOP chairman post has been a launching pad for statewide candidates before.
In 1970, Nelson Gross used the post to clear the field for a U.S. Senate bid against incumbent Harrison Williams. He pushed 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.