By Matt Rooney
I was one of the few-to-several hundred Republicans (I’m note sure there’s an official number yet) who ventured down to Atlantic City for the 2nd annual, 48-hour long NJGOP Statewide Leadership Summit at Harrah’s casino hotel.
I talked, listened, debated, observed, and also interviewed maybe a dozen different party leaders on #FacebookLive over the course of two days. I did not play any Blackjack. Next time.
The common thread emerging from my conversations? Phil Murphy represents a clear and present danger to the future of our state (duh), and recent Republicans losses at the local, state, and federal levels present both challenges and opportunities to build a new and improved opposition (the right attitude!).
What the new opposition should look like?
There are still profound differences of opinion on that all-important point, Save Jerseyans, but a consensus is growing. I’m cautiously optimistic for the future and, if you sat the summit out for anything other than an inescapable personal or professional obligation? You missed out. Consider this your formal reprimand.
I typed up some thoughts over the course of summit (see below) and did my best to cobble them together into essay form. I have more to say (shocking, I know). For now:
#1 – It was an unqualified success. To grow? The next event needs to attract large numbers of conservatives, activists.
A little over two years ago? The NJGOP was a complete and embarrassing non-entity in New Jersey politics, acting more-or-less as an expense account for then-Governor Chris Christie’s personal tactical interests and out-of-state travel. Remember when they spent state committee money on mailers supporting a ballot question to solidify the gas tax hike?
I’m proud to operate the state’s largest conservative website. I NEVER met Sam Raia, the NJGOP chairman during most of the Christie years. Think about that for a second.
Today: Chairman Doug Steinhardt is taking regular no-punches-pulled shots at Phil Murphy’s administration, his organization is spending its limited resources on party organizing and campaign education, and we’ve now seen two state-wide summits after years of no real attempts to build anything independent of the demands of Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations. That’s an accomplishment. Progress. Yes, not quickly enough to arrest the impact of years of decay, but real and laudable progress all the same.
By any measure? This year’s summit was an unqualified success. My rubric is simple: everyone who showed up derived real value from it.
Take yours truly as an example. I’ve spoken to GOP and conservative groups from just about every county over the course of nearly 11 years of Save Jersey, and yet I was happy to meet some totally new faces at this summit who are running for office, getting involved in a local party, or simply interested in learning more about how best to fight back. New Jersey is diverse and large for a “small” state; it’s easy to feel isolated and balkanized without opportunities like this to get together and exchange ideas. Plenty of long-time readers transformed from long-time Facebook friends to real life friends at the bar or over a coffee outside the panel rooms, and a few were willing to offer on-point advice for how Save Jersey can do a better job of meeting its mission. I plan to implement some of that advice in the coming weeks.
To grow? And take things to the next level?
The summit needs to evolve further into a full-fledged conference with speakers and programming capable of attracting those who are skeptical that the NJGOP is changing (or trying to change, if you want to be a little less generous). Next year, I’d feature GOP lawyer, young Republican, and pro-life receptions in addition to the leadership event. I’d also have one for Second Amendment enthusiasts, too, complete with a panel on New Jersey’s crazy, racist, unconstitutional gun laws. Let’s do a conservative media panel with some good friends of mine like Dom Giordano, Bill Spadea, and Rich Zeoli with audiences from either NJ 101.5 or 1210 WPHT out of Philadelphia.
An appropriate anecdote to buoy my opinion: I grabbed a steak (before Cory Booker and AOC make that impossible) and drinks with two good friends on Friday night of the summit. A random couple dining in the next booth over heard us discussing Phil Murphy and the “Green New Deal,” came over to our table to introduce themselves, and proceeded to initiate a delightful conversation about how they, as unaffiliated New Jersey voters, are openly GOP-skeptic but desirous to see Phil Murphy and his ilk defeated while there’s still a state to save. They listen to my friend Bill Spadea over on NJ 101.5; they had know idea there was a summit in the same hotel in which they were staying for a weekend away.
CPAC is CPAC. This will never be CPAC. I don’t think we want it to be CPAC. But with the right mix of substance, policy, and practical action? In the Murphy era? There’s no reason this event shouldn’t be able to attract a thousand (or more) attendees next year heading into the crucial 2020 cycle when New Jersey will once again be home to pitched House race battles.
#2 – Chris Christie is up to something.
Is he bored? Scheming? Both? Your guess is as good as mine, Save Jerseyans, but the New Jersey GOP’s most successful four-dimensional chess player is clearly less-than-interested in a quiet retirement with his wife, Mary Pat, at their pricey Bay Head home.
He showed up on Saturday at Harrah’s to address a couple of hundred lunching summit attendees and then signed books and took picture with a relatively small but nevertheless starstruck group of Republican foot soldiers. His long-time ally Bill Palatucci was on hand to orchestrate the details of Christie’s appearance and play Q-and-A host; other veterans of Christie ’09 and ’13 were there, too, as if someone had called them into active duty for a few hours.
Not much when viewed in isolation, perhaps, but other attendees in-the-know told me (at and prior to the summit) that the Governor has been poking his head out. Reaching out. Calling around. Accepting speaking invitations from right-of-center groups. Volunteering his opinions to Republican county chairmen.
Theories were plentiful. Maybe, most reasoned, he hasn’t given up on 2020 or even 2024. He explicitly refused to rule out a future run when asked. If Trump loses in 2020? And Christie has been more critical of his former “friend” Donald as of late… maybe, I was told, he could emerge as a more polished puncher than Trump and an alternative successor to the stylistically different Pence. Or the rumors of Mary Pat considering a House campaign in NJ-03 are accurate?
Who knows. Stay tuned. As ever, Christie world is a tight-knit, closed group. An alternative theory: at one point during his remarks, Christie lashed out at his critics including ‘online doofuses’ who think they understand what it’s like to govern. Hmm. Who do you think he might he be talking about, Save Jerseyans?? I’m not a betting man, but I have been watching this guy closely for a long, long time, and I suspect he’s simply not content to sit back and watch folks who don’t share his worldview — and a rosy opinion of his party leadership legacy — accrue influence in the party ranks.
#3 – The summit was pretty young but underrepresented by key counties.
This wasn’t an old event. A reception co-hosted by a gaggle of Young Republicans led by Point Pleasant Borough Councilman Mike Thulen and A.C. Councilman Jesse Kurtz was jam-packed with young Republicans who were under 40, male, female, black, Hispanic, white, and all-around incongrous with the stereotype of a young Republican. What I also noticed with a few definite exceptions (a shout out to Warren and Sussex counties) was how some of our counties abstained. Morris County — Chris Christie’s home base and a current target for Democrat expansion — was almost entirely unrepresented. Morris is getting called out due to its size and importance; it wasn’t alone.
A few of the best represented counties were “blue” outposts like Burlington and Middlesex.
You can’t complain about the direction of the party if you choose isolation over engagement, folks. Stand together or fail separately.
#4 – A poor legislative showing.
I counted two Republican state senators (Tom Kean Jr. and Declan O’Scanlon) of the fourteen elected members on hand. There were a handful of Assembly members (Bob Auth, Holly Schepisi, Parker Space, Serena DiMaso, Jon Bramnick, Ryan Peters and Robert Clifton). That’s it. Dismal.
There were notable absences from districts and places that are VERY much in the Democrats’ crosshairs for 2019 and 2021.
A popular topic of discussion among attendees with whom I spoke was the extent to which the New Jersey Republican cause is being held back by a generally unenthused, disunited, less-than-down-to-fight GOP caucus. The poor showing didn’t do anything to convince me they’re wrong.
#5 – The 2021 field is slowly forming.
Potential/speculated Murphy opponents who were working the summit: Jack Ciattarelli, Kim Guadagno, Holly Schepisi, Tom Kean, Jr., Shaun Golden, and Hirsh Singh. Ciattarelli (Kim Guadagno’s 2017 primary opponent) had the strongest base of support with this particular crowd which includes a vocal bunch who think he was the right pick last time and deserves his shot at the throne; Kean appears to be focusing on an NJ-07 2020 candidacy to take back Leonard Lance’s seat from Tom Malinowski.
#6 – NJ-02 could be another crowded free-for-all.
MAGA firebrand Seth Grossman (who lost a relatively competitive race to Jeff Van Drew last year) and millionaire businessman David Richter were both conspicuously courting support. Grossman scored an upset in a crowded field last June. Some of his supporters are still bitter, rightly or wrongly, over the national and state establishment’s reluctance to support Grossman after a series of gaffes. A possible repeat in the making? TBD.