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Jewish World Review July 9, 2001 / 18 Tamuz 5761

Bill Schneider

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As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation? -- WILL the Republican primary turns 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 the abortion issue.

When the U.S. Supreme Court threatened abortion rights in its "Webster"decision that year, the backlash helped elect Democrat Jim Florio in New Jersey and Democrat Douglas Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia.

In 1993, both states traded Democratic governors for Republicans: Christine Todd 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 Republican Establishment candidate?

For Democrats, it's clear enough. The Republican Party has gone over the edge.

Democrats have conventional wisdom on their side. It goes like this: the Republican Establishment has become so weak and demoralized, it cannot fend off a challenge from a conservative insurgent like Schundler. Schundler's extreme views -- anti-abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and pro-gun even 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. Twenty-three years ago, to be precise. Conservative Jeff Bell upset Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 New Jersey Republican primary. Then Bell got soundly defeated in November by an attractive Democratic newcomer named Bill Bradley.

Indeed, there are reports that Democrats in some parts of New Jersey were working for Schundler in last week's GOP primary. Democrats are rubbing their hands with glee at Schundler's victory 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 guns and abortion. 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. Jim Florio's tax hike swept all other issues aside. Moreover, Bill Clinton was President that year, and Republicans were angry. Now 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 -- Schundler could have problems uniting the Republican Party. Acting Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco describes himself as ``very neutral'' in the race.

But the man Schundler defeated seems willing to let bygones be bygones. Franks -- who was endorsed by 19 out of New Jersey's 21 Republican county chairmen -- said on primary night, ``He deserves to have a united party at his side. I intend to help lead that effort.''

Schundler does have some things going for him. Like his mentor, former Rep. Jack Kemp, Schundler knows how to survive in hostile territory. He got elected mayor of Jersey City three times. Democrats outnumber Republicans ten to one in Jersey City, and minorities comprise nearly 70 percent of the population. Schundler fashions himself an ``empowerment Republican'' who, like Kemp, talks about bringing 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 an unknown figure to New Jersey voters. He very nearly defeated Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in her 1997 bid for re-election.

To which Schundler supporters will respond, ``So what?'' Schundler just beat Bob Franks, who was hardly an unknown figure 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 also as an outsider, a man of plain-spoken convictions who takes on the political Establishment. Like John McCain -- a "conservative"John McCain. Democrats believe 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. It could happen if the economy gets worse. Voters put education at the top of their agenda this year. Schundler's signature issue is school choice. Not a bad issue in a state with a lot of Catholic voters.

And get this: 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 New Jersey a showcase campaign. Schundler has already managed to unite a broad coalition of conservative single-issue groups -- anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun and something called ``Citizens Against Tolls'' (which claims 25,000 members in New Jersey). Watch for conservative money to start pouring into New Jersey.

And if Schundler wins in November, conservatives see very big things for this guy.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.

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© 2001, William Schneider