By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
In the months leading up to last year’s Senate Special Election, it was a foregone conclusion that former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan was to become the Republican nominee. Though the partisan primary was technically contested, with physician Alieta Eck launching her own underdog bid, the Mayor’s name recognition and fundraising ability guaranteed victory and, as a result, the GOP largely unified behind his candidacy. It was the Democratic Party that saw a divided race. Four candidates, each well known, vied for the nomination, which ultimately went to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
This year, the tables have turned, and as the Democrats rally behind their incumbent Senator, the Republicans have found themselves in the midst of a hotly contested primary with no visible frontrunner. Five candidates have emerged to seek the party’s support, and though there are ideological differences between them, they are united in one respect: all of them are conservative. Indeed, the GOP seems to be headed Rightward, not surprising given Mayor Lonegan’s respectable showing last October. While moderate State Senator Joe Kyrillos, the nominee in 2012, received thirty-nine percent of the vote against incumbent Senator Bob Menendez, the ever-conservative Mayor Lonegan earned forty-four, a sign to some that the Rightwing message holds greater appeal.
Of course, those were extenuating circumstances. It was an unheard of October Special Election, where turnout was exceptionally low. This hasn’t stopped several conservative contenders from picking up the mantle from Mayor Lonegan’s candidacy. The field of candidates includes Ramapo College professor and former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Murray Sabrin, former Conservative Party candidate Rich Pezzullo, Republican activist Brian Goldberg, FBI agent Robert Turkavagae and Jeff Bell, a party veteran who was the GOP’s Senate nominee in 1977.
Attempts to zero in one a frontrunner have been largely futile, with the party divided amongst each. Last Saturday, Rich Pezzullo, who recently received the backing of the Union County GOP, received the Monmouth County Republican Party’s endorsement. An hour later, he lost to Murray Sabrin in neighboring Middlesex. Meanwhile, Brian Goldberg snatched up the party’s support in Ocean County.
All of the candidates are conservative, though Murray Sabrin represents the lone libertarian of the bunch. Anti-war and pro-individual liberty, his candidacy is best characterized as a philosophical continuation of Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, with which he was closely involved. Indeed, the elder Paul recently endorsed Sabrin’s candidacy, as have State Senators Michael Doherty and Steve Oroho, as well as Assemblywoman Allison McHose and Assemblyman Parker Space, all regarded as prolific figures in New Jersey’s conservative movement. To complicate matters, Rich Pezzullo received the endorsements of State Senator Jennifer Beck and Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, while Jeff Bell has Mayor Steve Lonegan’s backing.
With the county conventions now winding down and the primary rapidly approaching, the New Jersey Republican Party will need to select its torchbearer for the 2014 Senate election. Though the incumbent seems an unbeatable powerhouse, the direction from which the GOP plans to challenge him is telling, and exactly how socially conservative they would like to go over the next few months will greatly impact their showing in November.