NJ GOP Senate Front-runner Quits Over Grand Jury Probe

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The New Jersey Republican Party suffered another political blow Monday when its front-runner in the U.S. Senate primary race abandoned his campaign amid a federal grand jury investigation of possible corruption.

Jim.Trefinger, the current Essex County executive, made the decision after last week's raid of his offices by the FBI. Trefinger faces a grand jury probe of his activities as Essex County executive and as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000.

Treffinger cited the grand jury probe, which he believes is based upon "unsubstantiated rumors," and what he claimed would have been a lack of support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee for quitting the race.

"Until this afternoon, I intended to remain in the race. But I now believe that doing so would hamper the Republican party, negatively affect the eventual Senate nominee and work as a disservice to the many party leaders, supporters and friends who have stood by me at this time," said Treffinger in a prepared statement.

It was just two weeks ago that Treffinger and the other Republican Senate candidates said they would put partisan politics aside and focus on the record of current Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli, who has fought his own ethics allegations for the last five years.

Torricelli was the focus of Justice Department probes, which yielded no conclusive evidence and he was never the target of an active grand jury investigation.

The New Jersey Republican Party now must assess its own political future and choose its candidate from what remains of the field and from what a member of the Torricelli campaign calls "a bunch of little-known Republican candidates."

But this is just the latest in a string of GOP political failures tied to either ethics or criminal allegations, poorly financed candidates, or political differences within the party.

In 2000, party favorite Bob Franks lost a Senate race against multimillionaire Democrat Jon Corzine, who alone outspent the GOP candidate four to one.

Last year, former Acting-Governor Donald DiFrancesco dropped out of the governor's race when ethics allegations overtook his campaign. Instead of blaming rival Democrats for his troubles, DiFrancesco and many others in the state's liberal-leaning GOP blamed Bret Schundler, the conservative running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

DiFrancesco and the party standard bearers then drafted Franks to challenge Schundler, but Franks' 22 point lead in the polls evaporated and Schundler won the primary contest by 15 points.

Schundler, with a party divided, was crushed in November's gubernatorial election, and Republicans also lost control of the state Legislature to the Democrats in the process.

The withdrawal of Treffinger leaves only three candidates remaining in what was just two weeks ago a six-candidate field. Two conservative candidates, including former U.S. Independent Council Robert Ray, also recently abandoned their campaigns.

In a recent New Jersey Conservative Network straw poll, millionaire businessman Douglas Forrester came away with 48 percent of the vote, followed closely by State Sen. John Matheussen with 37 percent. State Sen. Diane Allen, who was closest to Treffinger in statewide polling last week, received no votes.

"Doug has shown he has wide-ranging appeal, and that includes conservatives," said Forrester campaign spokesperson Bob McHugh, who said his campaign was withholding any statements regarding Treffinger.

Representatives from the Matheussen and Allen campaigns would not comment on the Treffinger departure from the race.

Allen is considered a liberal Republican, and according to many party insiders, even more liberal that Torricelli. Allen is a former TV anchorwoman who has strong appeal with women and is well known in southern New Jersey.