While many are beginning to focus on the November General Election, it may very well be true that the June Primary provided the most drama and political fireworks in this election cycle. There are some political prognosticators who believe that this November Election will not be much of an election at all, but let’s not rush ahead with that one until we dissect the Anatomy of A Win, a win that was textbook, and one that future generations can look to see HOW to win a primary where the deck is stacked against you – 3 of 4 powerful Republican county chairs, along with the favored Republican candidate for Governor, Kimberly M. Guadagno, all heavily invested and supporting the eventual losing ticket.
Of course, I’m talking about the GOP primary battle in District 40.
Over the course of the last 22 years as a state legislator, I have found myself in the midst of a handful of primaries, none of them were much fun…well maybe 2007 was. So with this experience I can provide insight into the winning Primary team in District 40 and help outline some of the strategy that all but insured their victory.
By way of background, 14 months ago, three soon to be candidates (Kristin Corrado/Kevin Rooney/Chris DePhillips) met for the first time at the Totowa IHOP and decided to embark on this uphill journey. It was at this moment that they shook hands and pledged to run as a team, regardless of circumstance or unanticipated occurrences – whether one was on a particular “line” or not – they were running together. It was at this moment that the mold of a winner was cast.
At that meeting the following was agreed upon:
1) The team needed $300,000–all three made a commitment to raise a certain dollar amount and each exceeded their pledge.
2) The team agreed to use Al Barlas as the campaign manager to help navigate the soon to be choppy political waters. Al gets MVP for relentlessness and keeping all on message.
3) The team agreed to campaign themes and consultants. Chris Russell’s work was superb and I can’t look at a lemonade stand the same anymore.
4) The team agreed to learn as much policy as they could possibly absorb. Kudos to Thom Ammirato for compiling outstanding briefing memos.
5) The team agreed to the value of conducting opposition research on their opponents. A tactic that proved very fruitful (see lemonade stand or baseball mailer).
6) The team agreed to weekly meetings and daily check-ins.
7) The team agreed to make every event. They hit each and every event in every town, they rarely saw their confident opponents.
8) The team agreed to knock on every targeted door in each of the 15 towns – each had to buy a new pair of shoes.
9) The team agreed to paid GOTV program, 7800 targeted doors in the last 5 days – TWICE
These simple mandates defined this campaign. Each candidate brought an energy, a certain dynamic and a collective promise to work tirelessly until election night 8:01 pm, and they each held to that promise.
In February, we found out who the opponents were – BCRO Chairman/PERS retiree Paul DiGaetano would run for Senate, and he would draft former state Senator/recent Parole Board Member retiree Norm Robertson and Joe Bubba Jr (son of former state Senator Joe Bubba, Sr) to run with him for Assembly. Interesting historical tidbit: In 1997, it was then-Passaic GOP Chairman Peter Murphy who threw then-Senator Joe Bubba Sr off the line and ran then-Freeholder Norm Robertson for Bubba Sr’s seat in the Senate. Thanks to Peter Murphy’s ground-game, Robertson beat Bubba Sr 66%-34%. How’s that for irony?
When this race first started, many state players predicted that Paul DiGaetano (or Paul DeGaetano as his runningmate’s father, Joe Bubba Sr., called him in a mailer – curiously absent from that mailer was any mention of Norm Robertson), the former Majority Leader, and his assembly team of Norm Robertson and Joe Bubba Jr. were the odds on favorite to win this primary election – going away. But as a wise now-retired consultant once told me – “longevity in politics is not your friend.”
On paper DiGaetano/Robertson/Bubba were the team to beat – unless that paper was the opposition research dossier we compiled. The opposition research (if you don’t know yours and your opponents’ weaknesses, you don’t know campaigns) uncovered a treasure-trove of votes/information that GOP Primary voters weren’t going to like. We were confident in the end result of this primary once we found out that the DiGaetano team had voted to raise the gas tax, increased debt without voter approval, raised their own salaries as legislators, increased pension benefits for state workers – including themselves (hello 2017 $100 billion plus pension and health benefits shortfall), while two of the three had been collecting a state pension – federal and local unpaid tax liens, lawsuits, a wreckage of personal and professional finances , questionable associations and affiliations, a donation to Jim Florio and even two foreclosures. The mailers practically wrote themselves.
In campaigns you can always expect the unexpected, this campaign was no different.
Who could have predicted that the two seemingly tied-at-the-hip current chairs of Passaic and Bergen would allow their incorporation papers to simply lapse? By virtue of this incompetence or neglect (neither of which is acceptable for a Chair), they both opened the door for others to essentially own the incorporation of Bergen and Passaic. Let the chaos begin. Several lawsuits later and by virtue of a friendly campaign manager for the freeholder candidates (thank you Tim Troast) the Corrado team ‘owned the line’ and had party ballot position in Passaic and favorable positioning in Bergen. By owning their line, the Corrado team could select or deny candidates the use of the recently acquired party slogan.
Who would have guessed that the little town of Totowa, with just over 3,000 registered Republicans, would pull out 59% of the vote in in the primary? Hint: Peter Murphy did! Of that, 94% went to the Corrado team. Let me say that again–94% went to Corrado/Rooney/DePhillips
Here’s a glimpse of what Totowa did:
Totowa District 5:
Corrado: 208 DiGaetano: 4
Rooney: 189 Robertson: 4
DePhillips: 185 Bubba Jr: 4
As the presumptive frontrunner for the GOP nomination for Governor, the LG was potentially a huge factor. The Corrado team was under the impression that she was neutral in the race (the LG was graciously allowed, even though she did NOT ask, to stay on the on the Corrado owned line in Passaic [we apologize Jack]), and their reward for that gesture was a last day “October-in-June” surprise of Kim heartily and laughingly endorsing Paul DiGaetano (please see PD Facebook hyperlink). It is important to note that just as she was with Paul on the line in Bergen, she was with the Corrado team on the line in Passaic. Even more odd and curious, despite representations made by Kim and her staffers that she was “staying out of 40,” the LG took a side and aligned herself with Paul DiGaetano and his team in the only Essex town in 40, Cedar Grove – my hometown from the day I was born. Side note: My Irish dad instructed me at an early age that “Loyalty is a two way street” and some could make the legitimate argument that no legislator (over the last 7½ years) has been more loyal and supportive of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor than this retiring senator. My North Korean born mother once said to me “you will never forget the first and last time someone lies or misleads you” – well said Dad and Mom.
A PAC, which no one has heard of until now, was used to bomb the Corrado team with last minute negative radio – impact unknown other than to fire up Corrado supporters to a volcanic high.
Passaic County Chair, John Traier, inexplicably mailed (or allowed someone to use his name and letterhead) thousands of voters in the district (outside of his own county) and asked them to support the DiGaetano team.
A true Jerry Springer moment: Wayne councilman Richard Jasterzbski (not supporting the Corrado team – and after that tirade who would want his support) on the Sunday before the election freaked out on super-volunteer Susan Enderly (in front of her daughters) and let loose a 10 minute expletive laden barrage for the ages – all of which was captured on cell phones and has since been covered by News12, Channel4 News and all media outlets in New Jersey. This DiGaetano supporter will go down as one of the biggest political bullies in our state’s history. He is now facing criminal charges and a recall movement has begun in Wayne to remove him from the Council.
After 14 mailers (two a week for 7 weeks), $70k worth of strategic cable tv buys, ads in weekly newspapers in the district, thousands of lawn signs, a billboard, $22k worth of paid GOTV, thousands of doors knocked on by the candidates and their volunteers, every day spent meeting voters at town events/street fairs throughout the district, and a get out the vote operation in Totowa and Wayne like none-other, this is what happens: Corrado/Rooney/DePhillips crushed their opponents.
Corrado beats DiGaetano: 62% (7,698 votes) – 30% (3,712 votes) – Corrado loses Bergen to Chairman DiGaetano by 81 votes. Perspective: DiGaetano could’ve DOUBLED his vote totals and STILL lost!
Rooney and DePhillips beat Robertson and Bubba: 70.5% (16,691 votes) – 29.5% (6,969 votes)
Back in April when petitions were filed, DiGaetano/Robertson/Bubba had everything going for them – two seasoned candidates with Trenton experience, the chairmen of the two largest counties in the district in their corner, and then Chairman DiGaetano orchestrated the award of the Bergen line to candidate DiGaetano and his team as he stacked the selection with non-district 40 county committee members as voters. This was unprecedented and allowed DiGaetano to essentially award himself the line.
Flash back 2007: I, as an incumbent legislator in District 40, along with my running mates were thrown off the line in Bergen and forced to form a line of our own in Bergen County. We (my runningmates Dave Russo and Scott Rumana – now Judge Rumana) beat our opponents in Bergen and Passaic and Essex. We had the money, message, overwhelming support of the rank and file and we had the energy. Despite the long odds, we upended the establishment and found ourselves in the Victory Circle some 10 years ago.
As they say: History ALWAYS repeats itself.
Back to the 2017 Primary, and to the notion of the importance of running on the party line, you need to look no further than the percentage of vote garnered by Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli in the counties that they received the line and didn’t receive the line. Each received virtually the percentage of the vote as represented by the percentage of lines that they were awarded. LG was on the line in which 46.5% of primary vote were located and she received 46.8% of the primary vote. Likewise, Jack was on the line making up 31.2% of the primary vote and he received 31.1% of the actual primary vote. The power of the line can be of career stopping importance, but, in politics as in life there are always exceptions – see Bret Schundler in 2001 or District 40 in 2007 and 2017.
As the late and great Congressman and State GOP Chair Robert Franks educated many of my generation on HOW to win: MONEY/MESSAGE/ORGANIZATION. This team took his teachings to heart and then some. Bobby was the greatest political strategist, and after Governor Christie retires (the state GOP will miss Christie dearly), we will need to have campaign schools, modeled from Frank’s era, to train the next generation of political leaders. I volunteer to help launch the first one.
This win will be regarded as one of the textbook efforts on how to win a race. I hope that I was able shed some light and provide a little insight on this exciting race.
Congratulations to Kristin, Kevin & Chris –you are special people who represent the very best of the Republican Party and you are living proof that good things happen to good people Also, congratulations to Senator Oroho and Assemblywomen DeCroce—who won spirted races.
Closing thought: Netflix’s House of Cards has officially jumped the shark…
Kevin O’Toole is the Senator from the 40th Legislative District.