Conservative Schundler Gives New Jersey GOP Jitters

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

New Jersey ( - Now that New Jersey has lost its popular governor, Christine Whitman, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Republican Party must decide whether to stick to its liberal/moderate traditions or embrace the political philosophy of a darling of the national conservative movement.

In the 2001 gubernatorial election, the GOP establishment doesn't fear the Democrat in the race or the media. It fears Bret Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City, one of the state's largest cities, which sits directly across the Hudson River from New York City.

Before Schundler took office, the city waterfront was a haven for crime, the schools were both falling apart and about to be taken over by the state. Poverty and crime were the city's calling cards. Jersey City, as is the county in which it sits, is hugely Democratic.

Running to succeed a mayor who was on his way to federal prison, Schundler, as a Republican, won his first election by a landslide. His core support came from blacks, latinos, and from the large Indian and Asian population. His least support at the
time may have come from white males.

Schundler is not just a Republican. He's a Conservative! But it is his actions and philosophies, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one, that allowed him to win a second landslide.

Donald DiFrancesco is New Jersey's Acting-Governor, having risen through the Republican Party ranks during a 25-year career in the New Jersey State Assembly, achieving the position of lieutenant governor under Whitman, and then the top job when Whitman resigned to join the Bush Administration as head of the E.P.A.

DiFrancesco is considered one of the "Big Four" in Jersey Republican politics, along with Whitman, Chuck Haytaian, who is the state GOP Chairman, and Jack Collins, the Speaker of the State Assembly. It comes as no surprise to many that Whitman, Haytaian, and Collins are all honorary co-chairpersons of DiFrancesco's campaign for governor.

Haytaian vows the conservative Schundler will have virtually no support from 20 of the 21 county chairpersons. (Schundler is himself a Hudson County chairman). Haytaian believes there should be no primary at all. "We have a governor. [DiFrancesco] is the incumbent. Schundler should run for mayor, because he has no chance of winning the primary."

Schundler's press secretary, Bill Guhl, has a different perspective, saying DiFrancesco "did not receive the mandate of the people," when he was made acting-governor by Whitman.

As for Schundler, "he's a conservative, and he's a conservative in a Republican Party in the state of New Jersey which is basically liberal," said Paul Weyrich, the National Chairman for the Committee on Effective State Government for the Free Congress Foundation.

"The New Jersey Republican Party claims he cannot be elected. To the state Republican Party he's both an outsider and a threat," Weyrich said, also admitting that the intra-party battle could give Democrats an advantage.

Haytaian believes the media is playing a role in Schundler's gubernatorial run. "The media wants a primary so they can get a Democrat in there." He is also confident the conservative Schundler will bow out of the race even before the primary campaign hits high gear.

"Schundler will see the light. He'll be out of the race before June. And without support, he cannot win, and Don (DiFrancesco) has the party support."

Haytaian also questions Schundler's motives for higher office. "If he's just there to run, then he's not a good Republican."

Schundler maintains this election is not about party unity, but about bringing the state Republican Party back to respectability on core issues and values. "The state Republican Party right now is at a crossroads. Many here in New Jersey view the state GOP as a patronage organization. The head of the state Republican Party (Haytaian) is actively campaigning for DiFrancesco," Schundler said.

Schundler believes the state GOP leadership has gone astray in its beliefs and direction. "They are putting the entire party at risk by rejecting the principles upon which the Republican Party stands for," he said.

Weyrich echoes that sentiment and believes Schundler can become a lightning rod for the party by his ability to unite voters. "Bret has the ability to bring new members to the Republican Party. In Jersey City, he has a very broad base of support not normally found in GOP circles. Bret has the vision. Bret has the excitement. Bret has the ability to bring voters from inside and outside the conservative right into the party. His opponent in the primary (DiFrancesco) is lacking in all of these areas."

This may prove to be a critical issue for the New Jersey GOP, whose shining star, former Governor Whitman, won both of her elections by the narrowest of majorities, even after fulfilling her promises to lower taxes ahead of schedule. Whitman's pro-choice views, especially her support for partial-birth abortion, alienated many within the party.

Even Haytaian admitted Whitman had trouble crossing over to unite the party, which has not proved to be a problem for Schundler, a conservative Republican leader in a liberal Democratic stronghold.

Historically, New Jersey politics have sent a loud message, that a conservative cannot win high office in the state. But in this liberal-leaning state in 2001, the Republican acting-governor has no mandate and low name recognition and the leading Democratic candidate (Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey) has run and lost before. That leaves the Republican conservative who's proven he can attract voters from both parties. Even a recent Quinnipiac College poll showed the current acting-governor losing to his Democratic challenger by eight points.

Schundler believes he can win the state's highest office by simply using his success in Jersey City as a model and standing on the issues important to state residents, including education, taxes, tolls, and responsibility. According to Weyrich, "Schundler's appeal includes his results and values which have led to his broad-based reach. However, he must continue to recruit outside of his base to win."

Conservatives across the nation will be watching this primary, for as Weyrich believes, "The leadership Schundler has shown in Jersey City has the potential to become a national model for conservatives. He has the ability to awaken those who have left the party, along with those within his party who want a leader with values."