A Second Conservative Enters N.J. Governor's Race

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

(CNSNews.com) - The New Jersey GOP - not known for its conservative message - suddenly is finding it difficult to avoid the state's leading conservative voices.

Feeling abandoned by "politics as usual" among New Jersey Republicans, a second conservative is making a bid for the governor's office. State Sen. Bill Schluter launched an independent bid for governor over the weekend, pledging to purge "the evil of big money politics" from Trenton.

Schluter entered the race as another conservative maverick, Republican Bret Schundler, is fighting an uphill primary battle against U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, the New Jersey GOP's handpicked successor to Acting-Gov. Donald DiFrancesco.

Schundler was the first conservative to enter the gubernatorial race against the wishes of the states's GOP hierarchy. His platform includes lowering property taxes, improving schools, and lowering tolls, three bellwether issues to New Jersey voters.

Now Schluter's entrance into the gubernatorial race creates even more problems for a Republican Party that is still recovering from the political demise of DiFrancesco's failed campaign. DiFrancesco was forced to abandon the race last month after damaging reports about his personal finances surfaced.

The staunchly conservative Schluter will run as an independent, but he is expected to siphon votes away from Bob Franks, the likely winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary. Franks faces a tight race against Democratic challenger Jim McGreevey.

The 73-year-old Schluter said he intends to run because neither his party nor the Democrats have made serious attempts to reform campaign financing or offer property tax relief. Schluter wants to amend the state constitution to allow voters, through initiative and referendum, to change the laws governing the financing of political campaigns.

Schluter said in his recent conversations with Franks, he lost faith that the ex-congressman would carry his message against likely Democratic nominee Jim McGreevey.

Schluter's said his priority is a constitutional convention to reform New Jersey's property-tax structure. "New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation," Schluter said. He said there is universal agreement that the $14 billion annual property tax bill should be reduced -- perhaps by half. But there is no willingness by the current leaders to tackle the problem with anything other than "quick fixes."

"Neither party seems interested or involved in the major public-policy concerns of New Jersey," said Schluter. "Rather, they both are obsessed with raising millions of campaign dollars, most of which come from special interests."

Schluter denied that his announcement was intended to upstage GOP leaders who squeezed him into a predominantly Democratic area in the newly unveiled legislative redistricting map.

The Franks campaign is greatly concerned that Schluter could attract enough Republican votes in what is expected to be a very close race to help swing the election to the Democrats.

Charlie Smith, Bob Franks' campaign manager, said that although third-party candidates in New Jersey generally do nothing more than "taking a small amount of votes around the margins," any Republican votes lost to an independent would hurt. "Common sense dictates that a lifelong Republican who has represented a Republican district would take votes from the Republican nominee," Smith said.

Those sentiments are echoed by David Rebovich, a Rider University political scientist. He said Schluter stands a chance to get three to five percent of the vote in a general election, which probably would hurt Franks if Franks becomes the GOP nominee. That's because Schluter's supporters in a general election are people who probably would have voted Republican, Rebovich said.

Schluter's entry into the gubernatorial race guarantees conservatives a voice in the New Jersey governor's race. Schluter is being advised by Doug Freidline, who was the campaign manager for Jesse Ventura when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998.

"We think the senator's message is one that will resonate with voters in this state and there is a good chance for him here," said Freidline at a press conference. Freidline is expected to become Schluter's campaign manager.

Even before Schluter got into the act, polls showed Franks running ahead of conservative Bret Schundler with just four weeks left until the primary. Nevertheless, Schundler has gained some ground by taking to the radio to spread his message. Schundler also is expected to take part in a live radio debate with Franks.

Although Schluter currently has no money in his campaign account, he said he would easily be able to raise the $260,000 he needs to qualify for state matching funds and a series of televised debates with the major party candidates this fall. He predicted that a groundswell of support from disaffected voters of both parties could swell his coffers to $2 million before November.

Schluter, like Bret Schundler, has built a political career in the liberal-leaning New Jersey political landscape as a maverick who has been largely ignored by the GOP leadership on a range of issues.