New Jersey Gives Rudy a Boost

A look at how New Jersey's most conservative G.O.P. chairman may have just saved Giuliani's campaign millions

Yesterday afternoon, in a hotel conference room just off exit nine on the New Jersey Turnpike, the state Republican Party did presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani a huge favor: they agreed to consider an unprecedented rule revision that could, in effect, rig the New Jersey Republican primary, award Rudy Giuliani 52 delegates, save his campaign millions of dollars, and establish the state’s most conservative county chairman as an ingenious powerbroker.

Historically, New Jersey's Republican primary has allotted delegates proportionally, based on performance in the state's congressional districts.  Since 1968, the primary has been held late in the cycle and has therefore ratified the choices of Republicans in early-voting caucuses and primaries.

Last year, bowing to pressure, New Jersey decided to move its 2008 primary to February 5 in order to give its citizens more of a role. That was before most Republicans really believed that Giuliani would run.

Now, of course, Giuliani is a pseudo-favorite son, and in any scenario, he would receive a majority of convention delegates. But if New Jersey decides to keep its old rules, other candidates—John McCain, Ron Paul—could focus on specific Congressional districts and win their share of support.

David Von Savage, the chairman of the Cape May County Republican Party, wants to change the rules. His domain includes about 100,000 residents—mostly Republicans—who call a thumb-shaped peninsula on the state’s southeastern edge their home. Von Savage is decidedly to the right of most Republicans in the state. He never got along with the state’s pro-choice Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman, precisely because she held liberal views on cultural issues. Nonetheless, in February, despite the fact that, as he told reporters at the time, Giuliani’s social positions were “not an easy fit for me to reconcile,” he became the first New Jersey county chairman to back Giuliani.

Why did Von Savage do this?  Back to yesterday. During the state GOP meeting, an ad hoc adviser committee appointed by the state chairman voted 10 to 3 to send to the state committee a recommendation that the rules be changed to award all delegates to one winner. Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore, the chairman of the committee of county chairman—which is to say, a powerful guy—introduced the rules-change resolution. Mr. Von Savage seconded it. Now, two thirds of the several dozen members on the state committee must ratify it. One connected Republican said he would be “shocked” if the state committee “doesn’t accept this recommendation from the most powerful of the GOP powerbrokers.”

Here is what Gilmore and Von Savage want to accomplish: the moment New Jersey Republicans announce that they’re awarding all their delegates to the winner—whoever he may be—the race freezes. Giuliani, who has locked up more than half of the county chairs and virtually every major Republican endorsement the state has to offer, becomes the winner. Immediately.

And that means that Giuliani won’t have to campaign in the state. He won’t have to court, cuddle, or plunder the wallets of wealthy Republican donors in New Jersey. His absence will free up millions of dollars in political money that could be better directed at state legislative races. And when he does come to New Jersey, his activities can be devoted to furthering local ends. As Von Savage told a New Jersey paper this week,

Rather than spending money to pick up extra delegates in targeted areas of the state, if it's winner-take-all, he (Giuliani) can raise money for the candidates who are in the state and keep it in the state.

The benefits for Giuliani are calculable. Republicans in the state estimate that he’d have to spend as much as $6 million under the old rules to ensure that he’d win a good majority of the delegates. If he only has to win a bare plurality, Giuliani’s campaign manager can spend that money elsewhere.

The benefits to Von Savage are considerable as well. The potential president of the United States will be in Von Savage’s debt for more than 50 convention delegates, and for allowing him the ability to spend money elsewhere ahead of the February 5, 2008, super-primary.

Giuliani’s campaign is pursuing a “Feb. 5 Strategy,” in fact, hoping to effectively bypass the earliest, most conservative primary contests and leverage his popularity in bigger states with bigger prizes and less conservative voting stocks.

There are a few roadblocks to Von Savage’s plans. One is the state chairman himself, Tom Wilson, who in 2000 served as McCain’s New Jersey co-chair and is still considered a McCain loyalist. Wilson has promised Republicans that he would not use his power and authority as state chair to help any candidate. Wilson will proceed cautiously: he is up for re-election in June, and a relatively unknown Republican named Pete Mancuso is quietly building support for a challenge.

Wilson’s neutrality will be tested by lobbying from McCain’s New Jersey supporters, who believe that a rules-change could cost them convention delegates in a nomination race when the convention delegate tally might really matter.

This being New Jersey, one might be tempted to think that this plan  to influence the results of the election by tinkering with the voting process is a strictly local phenomenon. But in fact it’s terribly common. Illinois Democrats are trying to make it easy for Barack Obama to win delegates by moving their primary to February 5.  Conservatives in California—wanting to ensure that only conservatives vote in the Republican primary—are close to taking control of the state party executive committee. And McCain’s campaign recently defeated an effort by Michigan Republicans to consider primary rules that would prevent independents from voting.