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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Sacrificial Lambs

By Kevin O'Toole, January 14 2021 12:10 pm

January is here and another election cycle is upon us in New Jersey. Obviously, the gubernatorial race will dominate the headlines, but also on the ballot are all 120 members of the legislature, plus county and local offices.

Pretty soon organizations will start to look for candidates and get petitions circulated. If you’ve been doing this long enough you know which races are competitive, winnable, and so lopsided in one direction that getting someone to put their name on the ballot takes some effort – to put it mildly.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the term sacrificial lamb as someone or something that is deliberately sacrificed to promote a cause or for the benefit of others.”As a former chair of a county organization, I had to sometimes ask loyal party people to run a campaign in which they had a better chance of winning the Mega Millions than winning the office they put their name on the ballot for. Most of the party faithful accept the assignment with party pride and fully understand that the undertaking is going to end one way – with them losing badly.  Most of these individuals fly the party flag and do this so that the party can fill out the full ballot or support down ballot candidates. In every instance they do it for the good of the party and their sacrifice should be appreciated.

Understand that these candidates are necessary and their sacrifices are sometimes coincidentally rewarded down the road; with an appointment, a job, a favor to be called in later, or something somehow manages to roll their way. There are some who might not approve of this, but this is part of the political process.

The only problem is when some sacrificial lambs forget that they are sacrificial lambs. Sometimes a candidate in a no-win race magically and suddenly thinks, usually in mid-September, “that a win is somehow possible.”  How can that happen?

I remember talking to a then well-meaning party faithful to help the cause and fill a spot on a ticket against a very popular congressman. The ground rules were established very clearly. We appreciate the effort, but understand that the party won’t be giving any money as it is focusing all its resources on races we have a shot to win. All parties agreed.

Fast forward to mid-September. The candidate calls and tells me he has to meet. At the meeting my candidate pulled out a poll and some marginal opposition research. I remember flipping through the material and asking why are we having this discussion. The candidate finds his voice and said “I can win and I will win this thing…I just need some party money!!”

Oh boy. After some delicate tiptoeing, so as not to totally demoralize our erstwhile candidate, I explain that it isn’t in the cards. The candidate stormed out and it led to an uncomfortable situation for everyone. After the race was over, and the numbers fell exactly as predicted months earlier, the losing sacrificial lamb candidate then blamed me for this 70/30 loss. I can only bet a few municipal and county chairs are nodding now and thinking of a similar experience.

I share this story because as we approach the candidate recruitment season, and map out campaign strategy and fundraising goals for winnable/competitive races, let’s not forget those individuals who aren’t in those targeted races.  We should take a moment and appreciate them. These party loyalists sacrifice themselves at the altar of uncompetitive races for the greater good – the party.

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