Three Lessons From Primary Night

Three Lessons From Primary Night

By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog

A few thoughts as the dust settles from Tuesday night:

(1) #NJSen: All other things being equal, targeting matters most…

Jeff Bell
Jeff Bell

We’re going to spend some time in the days ahead analyzing Jeff Bell‘s surprising U.S. Senate primary victory, Save Jerseyans, having defied conventional wisdom and won a plurality of the vote despite shunning the county convention circuit and carrying not a single line. Residual name recognition? Maybe a little. Benefiting from opponents’ mistakes? Sure, to a degree.

The most obvious explanation: solid targeting.

It’s all anecdotal, but I’ve heard from numerous reliable GOP primary voters living in different counties who reported hearing from only one candidate in their mailboxes and robocalls in their voice mail boxes over the past couple of weeks: Mr. Bell, a former Senate candidate and speech writer for Ronald Reagan who hasn’t resided in New Jersey for three decades prior to this instant contest but who is determined to make an issue out of monetary policy and, specifically, reviving the gold standard.

Notwithstanding institutional disadvantages (and a less-than-orthodox messaging strategy), Bell’s relatively modestly-priced targeted mail campaign apparently allowed him to win populous counties like Bergen and Morris where there wasn’t an awarded line and place a respectable second place in places like Atlantic where someone else had the line. Lucky ballot positioning didn’t hurt either, notably in Bergen where he had the first slot. And the end result: a sub-30% win in a crowded field.

The Bell strategy likely would’ve come up short in a higher-turnout model or if any of Bell’s opponents had had real resources at their disposal but they didn’t, did they?  So there you have it…

(2) #CD12: Bridgegate – or at least Chris Christie – is a winning issue among Democrats…

Bonnie Watson Coleman
Bonnie Watson Coleman

This one’s pretty simple. New FDU poll results released Primary Day found Governor Chris Christie rocking a weak but “stabilized” 44% job approval rating in New Jersey. Reading deeper, however, leads to the discovery that Democrats continue to slip away from the Governor. Only about one quarters of Democrats approve of his performance; over 60% have adopted the opposite opinion, representing a major reversal from one year ago in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Newly-minted CD12 nominee Bonnie Watson Coleman didn’t exactly anticipate this trend when she was forced to quit the SCI after baselessly and inappropriately calling for Chris Christie to resign. It worked for her all the same.

Oh, and that time that her major adversary told Mercer Democrats that they were her enemy? And then Mercer took her at her word and turned out 17,000 voters to defeat her? That also played a role (h/t Olivia Nuzzi).

(3) #CD3: Man cannot live on RINO hunting alone…

Tom MacArthur
Tom MacArthur

It was Steve Lonegan’s race to lose, Save Jerseyans, without taking anything away from the intimidatingly dominant performance put on by GOP campaign dream team comprised of GC Chris Russell and the resurrected Frank Luna, but the former AFP-NJ chieftain and Bogota Mayor somehow managed to do lose despite himself. Or because of himself?

For starters, he never bothered to introduce himself to CD3 voters. Trumpeting his special primary win over Cory Booker in the district several months earlier served as a decent talking point for some voters but, unfortunately for Steve, it looks like his team actually believed it. An October election and a midterm primary aren’t analogous in any way as far as turnout models are concerned. He had he name recognition advantage, yes, but not a default electoral edge. Different beasts.

Steve Lonegan should’ve started the primary season with an inspiring biographical piece touching upon his family life, business background and relative success as a legally-blind activist. What did we get instead? Hyper-personal negative attacks and curiously dishonest ideological allegations. The attacks on MacArthur’s wealth were among the most bizarre I’ve ever witnessed in a Republican primary (given that GOP’ers are hardly anti-wealth). Some of the nastiness can be explained by the true lack of profound ideological differences between Lonegan and Tom MacArthur leading to the need to distinguish each other on different grounds.

It’s also the same race he always runs and, uncoincidentally, always loses. It’s a behavioral thing as much as it’s a strategy thing. Except for (1) the lack of engagement with the press this time around and (2) the populism angle (see above), both of which were distressingly new.

The “why” doesn’t matter in the final analysis. What does matter: a critical mass of the base electorate simple doesn’t like Steve for personal more than issue-based reasons. The ardent self-styled “anti-establishment” folks in his corner can rail against money, bosses, and all-manner of boogeymen until they’re all blue in the face. Until they internalize the reasons behind these failures, call off the RINO hunt and learn something from the experience, Save Jerseyans, they’re going to persist in a dangerous state of ignorance and continue to lose elections.


17 thoughts on “Three Lessons From Primary Night

  1. I agree that Lonegan ran a terrible race, but I think that the rest of your analysis was lacking. You did not mention the fact that MacArthur put in millions of dollars and was on TV a lot more than Lonegan. In primary races, more often than not, money wins. Especially when a candidate “loans” his campaign enough to not have to do any fundraising at all and can spend all his time meeting voters.

  2. Matt, you nailed it. Having canvassed for MacArthur in the weeks leading up to the election, much of the motivation for supporting Tom MacArthur did not come from overwhelming support for Tom, but strong antipathy towards Lonegan. There were plenty of voters who were supporters of MacArthur because they did not like what they heard from Lonegan himself. Some of these criticisms were policy based (particularly on defense spending and the Sandy aid) but more of it was simply that voters found Lonegan too shrill, power hungry or even more pejorative terms (kooky, deranged and insane were all used more than once). Matt’s right–Lonegan could have won this race with the name recognition advantage that he enjoyed earlier in the campaign, but he squandered that advantage with his own idiocy.

  3. I didn’t follow the race, but you hit the nail on the head with Lonegan. He has a great story & is a good man. As a conservative he is my candidate of choice based on policy. However, I voted against him in the primary with Christie because his nasty streak rubbed me the wrong way. I wish he’d go back to AFP. His work there had greater impact for the conservative cause.

  4. You’re not wrong. I did say that there were other factors (explored in other posts), but for what it’s worth, MacArthur needed to spend $1 million just to catch up to Lonegan in name recognition. I also did not explore Steve’s inability to raise money which, given how his supporters touted the existence of a national network, that was just as much a variable working against him. I chose to focus on what I thought doomed Lonegan’s chances.

  5. Matt Rooney really, Like the so called tough hard liner ending reminded me of somebody ……Yea some people dont like party Boss rule they believe in thier freedom ………..Jeff Scully read this and pound your chest when you read the last couple of sentences hahaha

  6. Except for the fact that Bell is a carpetbagger, a politician, and until proven otherwise, is part of the establishment. In addition, he had the only real Republican political experience.. He did target much better, though. Rich Pezzullo was the real surprise, beating out Sabrin and Goldberg.

    I think Pezzullo should gun for Menendez in 2016. His name recognition has certainly gone up, so if he can tour the state and raise money the next 18 months, he will be the definite GOP frontrunner then, and if a conservative is running on the presidential ticket he would have a strong chance at the general. (If Christie or Jeb Bush is on the ticket, though, fugetaboudit).

  7. Ocean County went overwhelmingly for the line, sadly. That includes underfunded liberal Brian Goldberg winning by a strong margin. The argument could be made that Bell was the least establishment of all the candidates, just because he had no lines. But at the same time, he is a seasoned political operative. I do appreciate the fact that he is different from the standard liberal Kyrillos / Zimmer / Kean types the power brokers love to shove down our throats. This may be enough for me to support him, even though I personally would have preferred Sabrin or Pezzullo.

  8. Bell’s win is not surprising. He was the only candidate who got any national media attention, and even in-state he was given more than his fair shake. The fact that Pezzullo even came close is a testament to his campaign team in that they nearly took down a candidate who exponentially outspent them.
    Jeff Bell is going to be absolutely crushed in the general election. Booker could cross the 65% threshold. Having the Senate race at the top of the ticket could cost republicans Jon Runyan’s seat, because Bell only has the funding to win a low-dollar primary, not take on the behemoth that is Cory Booker. Rich Pezzullo could make another run at public office for sure. If he had $50,000 more he could’ve run away with this thing. All 3 of his opponents had no campaign structure to speak of. Bell just had the almighty dollar (and a $100,000 mail drop courtesy of the PAC he only recently left.) Cory Booker is going to sweep to re-election because Bell is a boring, old, single-issue candidate. And that’s fine. The GOP gets what it deserves for not paying attention.
    What’s more frightening is that he’s going to leave the statewide GOP machine in shambles. People aren’t going to waste their time volunteering or supporting a guaranteed loser who can’t even excite them. Machines will fall apart from disuse and come 2017, when there is no Chris Christie to help us out, we’re going to look around and realize no one oiled the GOP machine in 2014 and we’re screwed. Bell will be back in VA by then, of course.
    But this is what the state GOP gets for not backing a candidate. Whether it was Pezzullo, Goldberg or Sabrin, they should’ve backed a candidate and helped him win.
    Now, Cory Booker can win by reminding the state electorate that his opponent is a carpetbagger. I imagine Aimee Belgard will do the same in CD3.
    Steve Sweeney called the NJGOP scared and timid, and I have to agree with him. They’ve effectively ceded 2014 to the democrats by nominating Jeff Bell, the only candidate in the race to have lost a general election on a major party ticket, and the only candidate who had essentially 0 volunteer support. They were too scared to nominate a serious challenger to Booker, so instead they nominated Bell in a 4% turnout primary. When the Booker machine comes a-knocking, the American Principles Fund won’t be there to save Jeff Bell. He’ll have to defend all sorts of homophobia and racism. And New Jersey Republicans will be punished for ignoring the primary with 6 more years of Cory Booker.
    Though something tells me that was the plan all along.

  9. This race also proved that the party line is not king. Goldberg had 9 lines and lost 2 of his line counties and didn’t break the 50% barrier in several others. People didn’t blindly vote the line. Though ballot position did play a role – Pezzullo won Hunterdon, where he was at the top of the vertical ballot. Bell had the best positioning in Morris and Bergen, a factor that arguably won him the race. Murray Sabrin won Salem because he was the first name listed on the vertical ballot. However, this race represented a shift we’ve seen nationwide: local Republican organizations are losing their grip on power, and primaries are sold to the highest bidder.

  10. How exactly is it the NJGOP’s fault that no candidate that you deem viable was put forward? If no one steps forward when the party is recruiting, it isnt their fault, its jus ttheir problem.

  11. Pezzullo was known to be weak on the Marriage issue. Pinning him down on it was like nailing jello to the wall. Movement conservatives are serious about the marriage issue and want their candidate to be above board on it. IF, Pezzullo was know to be pro-natural marriage instead of the candidate who was know (rightly or wrongly) to be pro-same-sex-marriage, he would have won!

  12. It’s funny when you think about it. Early on, Lonegan led MacArthur in the polls, 40% to 2%.

    After spending $800,000.00, Lonegan won 40% of the vote. He didn’t win a single convert.

    Lonegan should have done what he said he was going to do–not run if he didn’t win at least one of the Republican County endorsements.

    One’s ego can be self-destructive.

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