Cover Story

Ready, set, Bret!

With his surprise victory in the Garden State, Schundler conquers a liberal-dominated, northeast GOP. That places a Christian conservative at the top of the ticket in New Jersey. Securing his party's support is one thing, but can this brand of politics win statewide? The nation will be watching.

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

in Princeton, N.J.-The confetti cannons were silent in Princeton. The five-foot-tall, torpedo-shaped canisters stood at strategic points around the hotel ballroom, ready to blast Bob Franks and his supporters with a celebratory shower of paper and tinsel. Instead, it was the Franks campaign itself that got blasted-blown out of the troubled political waters by a conservative outsider running his first statewide race. Bret Schundler, the Jersey City mayor twice given up for dead in his gubernatorial bid, shocked the state's moderate political machine on June 26 with his 14-point win over a better-known, better-funded rival. In the process, he may have created a blueprint for candidates nationwide who've been told they're too conservative for the voters in their districts. The Franks campaign had every reason to be optimistic going into Tuesday's primary election. Mr. Franks, a former four-term congressman, barely lost to Jon Corzine in last year's Senate race, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by the millionaire ex-Wall Streeter. With high name recognition, a solid statewide organization, and a reputation for middle-of-the-road politics, he seemed like the perfect successor to Christie Todd Whitman. New Jersey's Republican establishment certainly thought so. In April, when acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, another moderate, bowed out of the race under an ethical cloud, panicked party leaders begged Mr. Franks to step in. Mr. Schundler, an outspoken pro-lifer and defender of the Second Amendment, was too "extreme" for New Jersey, they insisted. To tempt their centrist savior out of retirement and give him time to organize, the Republican machine rewrote the law to move the primary back three weeks. Then Mr. DiFrancesco turned over his staff, office space, fax machines, and more than $700,000 in campaign contributions to the Franks campaign, essentially wiping out months of hard work by Mr. Schundler. At the county level, 20 out of 21 party organizations endorsed the new candidate, giving him preferred ballot position and access to an army of volunteers. Mr. Franks, not surprisingly, zoomed immediately to a 22-point lead in the polls. Still, the tension was palpable Tuesday as supporters trickled into the Franks election-night headquarters. Despite all the opposition by party insiders, polls had showed Mr. Schundler closing the gap in the campaign's final days. Franks staffers huddled frequently, steering clear of reporters before whispering in each other's ears. Outside a VIP lounge, one staffer lay her head on the shoulder of another. "Bergen came in under 50," she murmured. The reference was cryptic, but the body language suggested the report was not good. When a live news report from Schundler headquarters showed a much bigger, more enthusiastic crowd 30 miles to the north, someone quickly changed the channel on the Jumbotron screen in the corner of the room. But a blank screen could only delay the bad news. Just 90 minutes after the polls closed, Mr. Franks took the stage. With former Gov. Whitman by his side, he basked in the cheers of his supporters for a moment. Then: "I just got off the phone with Bret Schundler," he began, as the crowd held its collective breath, "and I offered to do everything I can to assure his victory in November." With that announcement, a quarter-century of moderate domination within the New Jersey GOP may have come to an end. Not since Jeff Bell defeated a liberal Republican senator in the 1976 primary has a conservative outsider ousted the establishment standard-bearer. Critics point out, however, that the 1976 campaign actually proves the superiority of centrist politics in New Jersey: Mr. Bell, the surprise conservative choice, was swamped in the general election by a liberal Democrat named Bill Bradley. "If Schundler were to win, [Democratic nominee Jim] McGreevey will take it in November," predicted Anita Meeks, a Franks supporter of more than 20 years, shortly before the concession speech. "He's too conservative, too far to the right. His people are crazy. They go shooting people who go to abortion clinics. If a conservative wins the primary, the Democrats take it in November." That was certainly the message Mr. Franks tried to communicate during the campaign. He started his campaign by urging a "kick in the butt" for the entrenched politicians in Trenton, but quickly dropped that theme when it failed to resonate with his moderate base. Instead, the lifelong politician cozied up to the entrenched powers, hammering his opponent for being a "right-wing extremist" who would put guns in the hands of children and drive women to back-alley abortions. "The future of our party is at stake," he repeatedly declared. "I'm the Republican who can win in November." Almost no one seemed to think Mr. Schundler could win in June, let alone November. But the former Wall Street whiz kid has built his short political career on defying expectations. In 1993 he became the first Republican mayor of Jersey City since World War I, then won reelection with 69 percent of the vote-despite the fact that seven in 10 voters in his city were registered Democrats. His empowerment message-lower taxes, less government, more individual opportunity-found a surprising audience in the blighted city just across the river from Manhattan. An early, outspoken advocate of compassionate conservatism, he worked to reduce swollen welfare rolls and established a scholarship fund for sending inner-city children to private schools. That won him support in unexpected quarters: While he easily carried the vote among affluent white commuters, he also captured five of the city's eight public housing projects. Although a solid pro-lifer-he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest-Mr. Schundler rarely mentioned the issue in his campaign for the gubernatorial nomination. Instead he leveraged his pro-life support by forging alliances with other interest groups that have long felt locked out of New Jersey's GOP power structure, from gun owners to libertarians to blue-collar Catholics. He even tapped into frustration among commuters by promising to do away with the expensive, irritating tolls that seem to bring traffic grinding to a halt every 10 miles or so along the state's busy highways. The Schundler coalition is "a huge repudiation of the party," according to Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rugers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. "When all is said and done, it's rooted in a wing of the party that feels it has been ignored.... The party will be challenged by the conservative wing, [and] they'll have to figure out what to do with these people." Ms. Reed predicted that conservative challengers would run strong primary races next year against long-term liberal incumbents like Rep. Marge Roukema, a fixture of the GOP establishment. And the implications of the Schundler win extend far beyond the borders of the Garden State. "The true conservative message works anywhere, even New Jersey," said Christian Josi of the American Conservative Union. "When Schundler wins the general election, it's going to change the politics of the northeast for a long time. There are a lot of Bret Schundlers out there who will see this as a very empowering thing." As the new poster boy for social conservatives nationwide, Mr. Schundler faces even greater pressure to pull off a miracle win in November. If he loses the general election, moderates will tighten their stranglehold on the party machinery, arguing that yet another conservative has proved unelectable in a statewide contest. Indeed, there is some danger that the party establishment will create a self-fulfilling prophecy in that regard. Mr. DiFrancesco, the discredited acting governor, has said publicly he might not support his former opponent. The man who quit the race because he didn't want to answer media questions about his business practices said, without a trace of irony, "Bret Schundler needs to explain himself," implying if he doesn't hear a new liberal tune, he'll sit the race out. Mr. Franks himself was considerably more gracious. "United we will march to victory in November," he declared in his concession speech. "Tonight I'm signing up for Bret Schundler's army." The next day, Mr. Franks and former Gov. Tom Kean (also a pro-choice moderate Republican) joined the Schundler army as co-chairmen of the general election effort. Rank-and-file GOP voters shuffling out of Franks headquarters Tuesday night seemed split on whether they would follow the marching orders. Mrs. Meeks said she might stay home in November, though she's never missed an election-primary or general-in her life. But Ken Rothschild, who taught high-school math to Mr. Franks 34 years ago, said he would back the Republican nominee, and that most other Republicans would, as well. "You can't expect your candidate to agree with you on every issue," he said, singling out the abortion controversy. "It may take a while to unite, but I think we will." Voters like Mrs. Meeks and Mr. Rothschild will probably take their cues from party officials, who now must decide whether they are more loyal to the GOP or the status quo. On that question, the jury is still very much out. "[Stinks] big time," moaned state senate candidate Jane Greenleaf to a group of friends outside the ballroom where her leader had just admitted defeat. "Now we have to figure out what Plan B is." "This was Plan B," a man pointed out, referring to the forced reshuffling of establishment candidates. "Oh yeah," Ms. Greenleaf replied, shaking her head. "This was Plan B." The group of four fell silent, considering their uncertain future in a political game where all the rules seemed to have changed.

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