New Jersey, the Proving Ground State

The outcome of last week's Republican primary has turned New Jersey into a political proving ground. Democrats hope New Jersey will prove that the Republican Party has abandoned the mainstream. Conservatives hope New Jersey will prove that they can save the GOP in a part of the country where Republicans seem to be facing extinction.

New Jersey and Virginia, the two states electing governors this year, have been pretty good political bellwethers in the past. In 1989, they were bellwethers on abortion. When the U.S. Supreme Court threatened abortion rights in its Webster decision that year, the backlash helped make Democrat Jim Florio governor of New Jersey and Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder the first elected African-American governor of any state.

In 1993, both states traded Democratic governors for Republicans: Christie Whitman in New Jersey, George Allen in Virginia. New Jersey and Virginia were the leading edge of the Republican tidal wave that engulfed the country in 1994.

So what's the message of Bret Schundler's impressive, come-from-behind victory on June 26 over the GOP establishment's candidate? For Democrats, it's clear enough: The Republican Party has gone over the edge. Conventional wisdom says that the Republican establishment has become so weak and demoralized that it cannot fend off a challenge from a conservative insurgent such as Schundler. His extreme views—anti-abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and pro-gun to the point of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons—will drive away middle-of-the-road voters. That paves the way for a sweeping Democratic victory in November.

It's happened before—23 years ago, to be precise. In 1978, conservative Jeff Bell upset Sen. Clifford Case in New Jersey's Republican Senate primary. Then Bell soundly lost in November to an attractive Democratic newcomer named Bill Bradley.

Schundler's victory has Democrats rubbing their hands with glee and talking about not just electing a governor but also regaining control of the state Legislature for the first time in a decade.

The premise of that argument is simple: Schundler is unelectable. He's too right-wing on abortion and guns. New Jersey voters might be willing to set those issues aside if they were really angry about taxes. But it's not 1993, when the backlash against Gov. Florio's tax hike swept all other issues aside. Moreover, Bill Clinton was President that year, and Republicans were angry. Now George W. Bush is President, and it's Democrats who want to make a statement.

After a bitter primary campaign—"Bob Franks is losing, so he is lying," one TV ad said about the establishment candidate—Schundler could have problems uniting the Republican Party. Acting Republican Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco describes himself as "very neutral" in the race. But the candidate Schundler defeated seems willing to let bygones be bygones. Franks, who had been endorsed by 19 out of 21 Republican county chairs, said Schundler "deserves to have a united party at his side."

Schundler does have some things going for him. Like his mentor, former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., Schundler knows how to survive in hostile territory. He got elected mayor of Jersey City three times. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-to-1 there, and minorities comprise nearly 70 percent of the population. Schundler fashions himself an "empowerment Republican" who brings new voters into the GOP.

Schundler will tout his Jersey City record—an economic boom and a sharp drop in the crime rate—and contrast it with Democrat Jim McGreevey's record as mayor of Woodbridge. Moreover, as a state legislator, McGreevey voted for Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase. But McGreevey is not exactly unknown to New Jersey voters. He very nearly defeated Gov. Whitman in her 1997 bid for re-election.

To which Schundler supporters will respond, "So what?" Schundler just beat Bob Franks, who was hardly unknown either. Just eight months ago, Franks did surprisingly well in his race against free-spending ($60 million!) Democrat Jon Corzine for the U.S. Senate.

Schundler is running not just as a conservative but as an outsider, a man of plainspoken convictions who takes on the political establishment. He's like Sen. John McCain, a conservative John McCain. Democrats think that Schundler will frighten the voters. But Schundler's not a hater. He's a happy warrior.

What Schundler needs, most of all, is an issue. Conservatives put their faith, as always, in taxes. That could be an important issue if the economy gets worse. Voters now put education at the top of their agenda. Schundler's signature issue is school choice—not a bad issue in a state with a lot of Catholic voters.

And Schundler wants to abolish tolls on the Garden State Parkway. That could be a sleeper issue in a state where people are regularly asked, "You from New Jersey? What exit?"

For conservatives, Schundler's primary victory makes the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign a showcase. Schundler has united a broad coalition of conservative single-issue groups—anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun, and "Citizens Against Tolls" (which claims 25,000 members in New Jersey). Watch for conservative money to start pouring into the state. And if Schundler wins in November, conservatives see very big things for this guy.