By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
Few people seem to realize it, but the major party primary elections were on Tuesday. As usual, the event went unnoticed by those who aren’t rabid political junkies. That’s not surprising, however, as neither of the gubernatorial races were hotly contested; Democrat Barbara Buono was nearly guaranteed her party’s nomination after most of the other contenders were purged from the ballot; incumbent Governor Chris Christie, running for the Republican nod against former Atlantic City Councilman Seth Grossman, was never really threatened by his under-funded, lesser-known ideological challenger.
Such was the tone for a good portion of the state: races with unchallenged candidates or victories that were predicted almost from the start. Typically, this environment would carry over into Monmouth County and the Thirteenth Legislative District, where few expected the Republican primary campaign to be anything other than a routine affair. The three popular incumbents, Senator Joseph Kyrillos, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, and Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, seeking re-election down-ticket from Governor Christie, seemed to have their victories assured virtually from the start. That anyone within the GOP would seek to challenge any of these legislators was nothing short of unfathomable given their proven electability and close working relationships with Republicans and other conservative causes throughout New Jersey.
And yet, in a surprising turn of events, what was expected to be a non-descript election devolved into fierce intra-party warfare. Despite their popularity, the legislative incumbents found themselves pitted against several Tea Party challengers, each running from the Rightwing of the Republican Party on rigidly pro-life, anti-gun control platforms. Known as the Republicans for Conservative Leadership, these candidates, headed by State Senate hopeful Leigh-Ann Bellew, herself a former a Congressional candidate in the Sixth District, challenged the notion that the incumbents were even conservatives at all. Campaign signage urged the public to vote out “liberal Republicans,” literature slammed Kyrillos’ record in Trenton, and robo-calls urged voters to turn on their incumbents.
The Republicans for Conservative Leadership campaign was backed by the Bayshore Tea Party Group, which political enthusiasts will remember previously helped propel Mayor Anna Little to her primary victories over establishment favorites Diane Gooch and Ernesto Cullari during her two Congressional bids. Had it not been for their high profile campaigning, this internal debate likely would never have spilled over to the public’s eye; however, one had to wonder if ideologically Rightwing, anti-abortion candidates could actually be elected in suburban Monmouth County?
It was highly unlikely. New Jersey is a traditionally “blue state,” and while it could be argued voters like a healthy dose of fiscal conservatism, social moderation seems to be key when appealing to the general public. Though Kyrillos, O’Scanlon and Handlin are all “pro-life,” they have never made that issue, which is typically left to federal candidates, prominent in their various campaigns. To run almost solely on social issues is a recipe for disaster; similarly, gun rights, a popular issue with the challengers, has never resonated with liberals or moderates, something that would present a real problem for the Republicans for Conservative Leadership if they had won the primary and were forced to appeal to both Democratic and independent voters this November.
Last Tuesday, the Republicans for Conservative Leadership’s Leigh-Ann Bellew received almost twenty-two percent of the vote; the incumbent state legislators, sheriff, and freeholders all won the primary by large margins. Monmouth County, it would seem, was happy with its fiscally conservative, center-right representation in Trenton. Such is an interesting case study for the problems plaguing the Republican Party at the national level; Far-Right sentiment is not likely to be embraced in an increasingly ethnically, religiously, and sexually diverse America.
True, large segments of the Republican Party decry “moderates” like Chris Christie, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, or anyone else who expresses non-dogmatic ideals; however, the alternative, candidates like former Senator Rick Santorum or Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, will never be elected at the national level. Their vitriol and focus on social issues and scare tactics, topics that a conservative government (ie: one that is minimalistic in its functions) could never regulate without high taxation and regular intrusion into the personal lives of the citizenry, has sealed their fate. Indeed, the future of the GOP, if it hopes to survive past the next election cycle, are those like Governor Chris Christie, Governor Bobby Jindal, and former Governor Jon Hunstman, fiscal conservatives whose focus is on economic issues, education and taxation, the meat and potatoes of conservatism, which have broad appeal even outside the Republican Party. The millennial generation, particularly those in the Northeast, do not share the views of the “Moral Majority,” which were so popular in the 1990s, or the “Buchanan Brigades,” the aggressive pro-lifers who swept across the nation in 1996.
Earlier this week, Monmouth County Republicans voiced their desire to continue the Christie Agenda by backing Senator Joseph Kyrillos, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, and Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, against the Democratic nominees this November. That the Tea Party alternative suffered such defeat should be a wakeup call to that movement: return to focusing on economics and lower taxation and leave the social issues behind or face inevitable isolation from the mainstream. The Tea Party could very well be a voice for true conservative principles, as it was in the wake of Congressman’s Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign, but in order to do so, it must focus on the issues that really matter to voters. In a state like New Jersey, that means voters’ wallets.