Reprinted by permission of Campaigns & Elections magazine
Bret Schundler's Big Win
How the Jersey City mayor toppled the New Jersey GOP political establishment to win a stunning gubernatorial primary victory
The insurgent, largely grassroots campaign Schundler would put together was, from a strategic sense, "Bret-centric," very tightly focused on a few issues and the candidate's record in Jersey City.
By Mary Clare Jalonick
Mary Clare Jalonick is associate editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine and managing editor of Campaign Insider. This case study is part of The Campaign Assesment and Candidate Outreach series sponsored by the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, University of Maryland, with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
New Jersey politicians in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention last year got a good idea of what Bret Schundler's gubernatorial campaign was going to be like.
It was a campaign rally, really, for Republican leaders and operatives of all stripes, even outspoken conservatives who weren't given prominent roles at the real convention.
It was an obvious, but nonetheless appreciated, ploy to jumpstart his 2001 gubernatorial candidacy, designed to give Schundler exposure among GOP stalwarts, party workers and fundraisers not only in New Jersey but across the nation. It was a smart move.
At the event, Schundler didn't dwell on his bid for governor, but he made sure to send a message to the establishment of the state party. Two-term GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was term-limited, and Republican State Senate President Don DiFrancesco and Assembly Speaker Jack Collins looked like Schundler's two main rivals for the party nomination. The mayor wasted no time setting up what would be the central message in his outsider, insurgent primary campaign: that state party's pooh-bahs were not in touch with the people, and he was.
"The Republican Party is a patronage system. It is about jobs. DiFrancesco and Collins are in control of that system," said Schundler. "But the party also has to win. When the party members see that I will win, they will come to (support) me."
Schundler's bravado seemed silly to some political pros at the time. He was a fledgling candidate with no experience on the statewide scene, and many election watchers dismissed him as a serious contender because of his conservative social views on issues like abortion rights and guns - views, they thought, that would not sit well with more liberal New Jersey voters.
But his mini-convention - to which he had bused Republicans from all 21 counties in New Jersey by means of an organized grassroots system - created the buzz it was calculated to generate. Schundler was thinking outside the box of conventional political wisdom and was about to run an innovative campaign aimed at upending his own party's establishment or, as Schundler's supporters would call it, "the machine."
The Trenton cognoscenti, of course, remained dubious.
The insurgent, largely grassroots campaign Schundler would put together was, from a strategic sense, "Bret-centric," very tightly focused on a few issues and the candidate's record in Jersey City. All parts of the campaign - mail, media and ground operations - worked together like clockwork, while the candidate directed much of the message and strategy himself.
"We took the head off the machine. Then we took the body of the machine and had it working for us," said Kim Alfano, Schundler's media consultant, shortly after Schundler's stunning June 26th victory.
Schundler, a Harvard graduate who speaks eight languages, offered something many modern campaigns evade: intellectual depth. The eclectic, unconventional Jersey City mayor takes no subject lightly, and scoffed at the old-time meet-and-greets that are a staple of most elections. Instead of quick campaign stops, he would "educate" his supporters in his ideas, holding what he called "mini-seminars" around the state. His direct mail - the dominant medium of the campaign - was wordy and explanatory, filled with policy substance.
It was a different kind of campaign. Schundler is a different kind of candidate. And on primary date, it rolled out with calculated precision, though it got there with a lot of twists and turns along the way.
Schundler's record as mayor gave him plenty of fodder for conversation. Since he was elected in a 1992 special election, his supporters claim he has revitalized the decaying city that had a long history of corrupt government. Crime decreased by a third, with more police officers on the streets. He sold the city's tax lien on Wall Street and made enough money to give residents a six-month "property tax holiday" in 1994.
The most interesting part of the "Jersey City success story" - the campaign's name for Schundler's tenure as mayor - was his unconventional approach to partisanship and political philosophy, combining pinches of pragmatism with dashes of ideology, an inclusive, anti-tax, pro-free-enterprise, socially conservative stance that may be described as one part Jack Kemp, one part Bobby Kennedy and one part Bill Bennett.
He was the first Republican elected mayor in the Democratic stronghold since 1917, and he beat a powerful Democratic machine to do it, assembling a fusion downballot ticket made up of Democrats and Independents. His gubernatorial campaign would begin with the message of Schundler as maverick, Schundler as successful executive, and stay with it throughout.
Because of the grassroots nature of his planned gubernatorial campaign, Schundler knew he had to start early to prepare for the June 5, 2001 primary. He filed for candidacy on May 25, 2000, and began planning for his Philadelphia mini-convention. That June, he held a fundraising event in his hometown of Jersey City, netting an impressive $750,000.
Nearly a year before the scheduled primary, the Schundler campaign began to shape up. The candidate hired Alfano Communications, a Republican media firm based in Washington, D.C. Kim Alfano, 33, the president of the firm, pitched the campaign as a package with Matt Leonardo, 27, of Red Zone Communications. Alfano would do TV and radio production and Leonardo would do direct mail.
Along with Alfano and Leonardo, the campaign recruited Bill Pascoe, a press spokesman for the RNC during the Bush campaign in 2000, as campaign manager and New Jersey veteran Evan Koslow as political director. Bill Guhl, who had worked as a press secretary in the state legislature, would eventually head communications.
the youth of the campaign team mirrored Schundler's energy. The mayor has
an enormous amount of enthusiasm for politics and for talking about
politics. "Bret has the sheer determination and passion for what he
believes," gushed Alfano. "The beauty of having a young campaign
team is that we first believed in the passion."
By the end of September, the campaign got its first big break. Assembly Speaker Collins, who had conservative views similar to some of those shared by Schundler, dropped out of the race. The right end of the state's GOP spectrum - a large group of voters who often felt left out during the seven-year reign of Christie Whitman and her moderate-to-liberal social views - was now Schundler's for the taking.
Underdog Schundler spent the intense weeks of the 2000 election season increasing his name ID by actively working for candidates on the November ballot, focusing much of his energy in support of U.S. Rep. Bob Franks' ultimately unsuccessful candidacy for the U.S. Senate and George W. Bush's campaign for the presidency. He raised $300,000 to run ads explaining the Bush tax cut proposal, and joined with Franks often on the campaign trail as they both battled against the virtually unlimited spending of Democratic hopeful Jon Corzine. When election night came, Schundler was one of a few politicians asked by Franks to watch the returns with him. It was an irony that would later bite deep.
With November 7th behind him, Schundler began his gubernatorial campaign in earnest. Alfano created early television ads featuring Schundler that promoted The New Jersey Scholarship Fund, a group he founded to promote school vouchers. Leonardo, working with Koslow, created biographical mail pieces that would go to "four in four" voters - Republicans who had voted in four out of the last four primaries.
The mail dropped quietly - Alfano calls Leonardo the "stealth bomber" - and the television ads received little attention. But while the public took a breather from the brutal 2000 election season and its long aftermath, Schundler fought to stay on the radar screen of those in the know.
In December, the campaign's first public poll was released. Franks, who had run a strong race against Corzine despite a 10:1 money disadvantage, had become a bit of a folk hero among New Jersey Republicans. He was now seen as a possible gubernatorial candidate himself, polling within three points of Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, the leading Democratic candidate who had lost a tight match against incumbent Whitman in 1997. But worn out from a tough Senate primary and losing general election in 2000, Franks discounted talk of a governor's run. Some expected him to make another Senate bid in '02, against Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli.
The same poll showed McGreevey beating DiFrancesco, a likely GOP candidate, by a wide 15-point margin. It also showed him leading Schundler by 16 points. Because the poll pegged Schundler at only 21 percent statewide name identification, these results were not entirely discouraging. They showed, if anything, that the Jersey City mayor had considerable room for growth against McGreevey, who already had built a statewide profile in his 1997 campaign against Whitman.
In a state that lacks its own major media market and has to fight its way out of the shadow of New York City and Philadelphia TV stations, most New Jersey public officials sport name recognition percentages far less than their counterparts in other states. That meant that Franks' 62 percent name ID was relatively very high and DiFrancesco's 27 percent not unexpected.
something happened on the way to the gubernatorial primary: newly elected
President Bush appointed Whitman as Environmental Protection Agency
administrator. Under New Jersey law, her resignation as governor would
elevate DiFrancesco, next in line as senate president, to the
governorship. Now, with an incumbent in the governor's office running for
election in his own right, that would change everything. Or would it?
Fighting the Incumbent
DiFrancesco had filed his gubernatorial candidacy on Jan. 5 and became acting governor Jan. 30. As he gave his highly publicized state of the state address as New Jersey's new chief of state, Schundler - not one to miss a press opportunity - found a nearby room in the state capitol building and gave his own address for reporters. He accused the acting GOP governor, a moderate, of "following the Democrats' model" only spending a little bit less. He called it "cheap socialism."
Schundler also criticized the state's education system for "teaching facts but not teaching truth," expressing concern for the "moral culture of the state."
As the race began to heat up, prominent Republicans urged Schundler to withdraw. It seemed obvious to many that the mayor, with his conservative views, low poll numbers and lack of establishment support, did not have much of a chance in the primary. Republican regulars feared he was causing intraparty rancor at a time when the GOP needed to unite together to beat McGreevey and the Democrats in the November election.
Jim Treffinger, the Essex county executive who ran third in the Republican U.S. senatorial primary in 2000, endorsed DiFrancesco, saying publicly to Schundler, "you will be a great candidate, just not now."
But exiting the race was the last thing on Schundler's mind. "We remain confident that as Bret carries his message of real education reform and honest property tax cuts to primary voters, they'll rally around the one Republican who can win in the fall: Bret Schundler," campaign manager Pascoe said in a newspaper interview.
On February 13, the Schundler campaign officially kicked off with a three-day bus tour around the state. During the tour he touted his record in Jersey City and painted himself as a dark horse, focusing primarily on lowering taxes but also discussing moral decay and his support for school vouchers. He told supporters of his plan to lower tolls on the Garden State Parkway, an issue that would soon pay political dividends.
He stepped up his attacks on the acting governor, at one point saying "Don DiFrancesco is running for governor because it is his life's aspiration to be governor. I am running to lower your property taxes, lower your income taxes and those darn toll taxes - as well as to give parents the freedom they need to provide for their child's education."
The education issue was a tricky one for Schundler, but he managed to champion his traditionally conservative ideas while appealing to lower income families who often distrusted Republican economic policies. His platform included local experiments with vouchers, an increase in the number of charter schools and rigorous new statewide performance tests. Them teachers' unions - an important voting bloc in the state - strongly opposed his views.
In mid-February, the three major candidates for governor - Schundler, DiFrancesco and Democrat McGreevey - spoke to the teachers union. While the other two candidates espoused reforms popular with the audience, Schundler laid out his more controversial stands with no hesitation.
After the forum, union president Michael Johnson told a reporter he gave Schundler credit. "He just said, 'Here's what I feel,' and put it out there. I also give [the teachers] a lot of credit: They didn't throw silverware."
But school vouchers would soon fade from the state's political radar screen. Something else was brewing in Trenton, and it gave strategists something new to calculate.
Just as the Schundler bus tour began, news reports began to surface that DiFrancesco had received personal financial assistance from someone who later received a state contract. The Schundler campaign jumped on the issue immediately. "When you're getting sweetheart loans from state contractors, frankly it stinks like an old athletic shoe," Pascoe told reporters.
Following the lead of Democrat McGreevey, Schundler released personal financial disclosure forms for the nine years he had served as mayor of Jersey City. DiFrancesco called the challenge an "attention-getting gimmick" and hesitated to release his own. When DiFrancesco finally did release his tax returns, he did it at the end of the day on a Friday, apparently hoping it would get minimal attention. But the papers published an analysis of the returns the next day, and the Schundler campaign sent reporters pizza for nourishment on their late Friday night at work.
Though DiFrancesco caught press flack for not disclosing tax returns for his entire state senate career, Schundler came in for some criticism himself. He had not disclosed the names of donors to two charitable groups he had created to promote his political ideas - one of which was the New Jersey Scholarship Fund - and the press blasted him for it.
candidates traded barbs about finances, and as the stories about
DiFrancesco's dealings escalated, the caretaker governor launched into an
attack on Schundler, calling for an IRS investigation into the use of
tax-deductible money for ads that featured Schundler promoting his
scholarship fund proposal. The money used for the commercials totaled
$770,000, and Schundler's detractors said the mayor had used those
donations to foster political plans.
Despite the hurling of accusations over financial deals, Schundler worked hard to stay on message by cleverly turning troubling questions about the scholarship fund into answers that stressed the positive side of his educational proposals. A good offense, they believed, was the best defense.
The Schundler campaign continued to drop mail to the "four in four" voters through February and March, most of which was biographical and positive. The early April filing deadline had not yet passed, and DiFrancesco's problems were mounting.
The campaign had decided to give radio and direct mail budget priority over television, since New Jersey does not have its own local broadcast television market, and the Philadel-phia and New York stations are extremely expensive. By the first of March, Schundler launched a flight of radio ads. The 60-second ad called him a "true conservative, determined to run even though the political bosses say he shouldn't."
On March 8, a Quinnipiac poll was published, giving DiFrancesco 46 percent and Schundler 24 percent in a primary matchup. The poll showed that DiFrancesco was stalling and Schundler was beginning to slowly gain among undecided voters, just as the campaign had planned.
DiFrancesco started ignoring his primary rival and said he would let his actions as governor speak for themselves. Schundler stayed on course, traveling around the state and "educating" supporters in his ideas, running "bio" ads on the radio and dropping mail to high-propensity Republican voters.
As the filing deadline passed in early April, handicappers were still giving DiFrancesco the clear advantage. But the Schundler campaign remained determined, continuing its painstaking grassroots organizing efforts. "Donnie is cratering and we are surging," said Pascoe in an interview. "Donnie started the race with the party elite and all the institutional advantages that conveys, but we are catching up, and we'll pass him before he gets to the finish line. Ideas win."
As more and more newspaper articles were published about DiFrancesco's financial misdealings, talk about DiFrancesco leaving the race increased. Though the sitting governor was an active candidate, establishment Republicans couldn't keep their eyes off of someone standing quietly in the wings: Bob Franks, the man who came close to beating money-bags Corzine; the man who had those high general election poll numbers against Democrat McGreevey.
In the last weeks of April, another report came out that DiFrancesco had kept an ownership stake in a parcel of land secret while acting to benefit his family and a major developer. Schundler called for DiFrancesco to leave the race, and rumors began to circulate that party leaders in Trenton were privately asking the acting governor to do the same thing.
Then, on April 23, the Republican-controlled legislature made a move that anyone who relishes the unabashed exercise of raw political power would have to appreciate: they delayed the primary election from June 5 to June 26, and extended the deadline for withdrawal from the race. They also provided an additional $1.4 million in public financing to candidates who follow campaign spending limits.
The big switch was on.
On the 25th, DiFrancesco was out of the race. On the 26th, Franks was in. By the end of the week, DiFrancesco had effectively transferred $720,000 in campaign funds to Franks, and every Republican county chair except Schundler himself - he is chair of the Bergen County party - endorsed Franks as their nominee.
Party leaders pushed back the primary filing and election dates to give Franks time to enter the race. The boys in the back room had their candidate. Once again, Bret Schundler was outside looking in.
But the Schundler campaign didn't take this breathtaking switcharoo lying down. They immediately filed a lawsuit, saying the laws were changed solely to help Franks, and that the transfer of public money as part of the state's tax-supported campaign financing system was illegal. The suit was thrown out by an appeals court two weeks later.
Franks and the McCain Playbook
With the old campaign dynamics radically altered, Schundler's strategy essentially remained the same. He continued to pound the same issues - his Jersey City record, taxes, education and "those darn tolls" - and would steadily drop Leonardo's mail pieces promoting them. Radio ads also continued.
Franks began a campaign modeled after Sen. John McCain's presidential run, touting himself as a reformer and championing campaign finance reform. He immediately called Schundler a "formidable opponent," at a time when many in the state thought his underdog candidacy was doomed.
Attempting to blur Schundler's maverick image, Franks made a speech early on that blasted the Trenton establishment. He told an audience in Kenilworth that "too often, Trenton has refused to take on some of our toughest problems."
The message seemed somewhat disingenuous, since Trenton was giving him nearly unanimous political support. But he was still the clear frontrunner - a Quinnipiac poll released in the first week of May showed Franks with a 22-point lead over Schundler, 46 percent to 24 percent.
Franks had the financial edge as well. Though both would spend roughly the same amount by the campaign's end, Schundler had already spent $2.2 million when Franks entered the race.
New Jersey election law gives gubernatorial primary candidates two public dollars for every private dollar raised, as long as the candidate privately raises more than $260,000. The cap for public funding was now $3.7 million per candidate, up from $2.3 million before the legislative maneuver that allowed Franks' entry into the primary. To reach the cap, candidates had to raise approximately $1.8 million privately - which both Schundler and Franks did.
After accepting the $3.7 million in public funding, in exchange, New Jersey election law will not allow a gubernatorial primary candidate to spend more than $5.9 million total. In the end, Schundler spent $5.7 million and Franks spent $5.9 million.
By the first of May, both candidates were running radio ads calling themselves the true fiscal conservative. Schundler's ads invoked Ronald Reagan and called the mayor the "only true reformer" and Franks a "tax and spend party insider." Franks recalled his race against Corzine in a similar ad.
The ads eventually evolved into math problems, with each candidate hurling statistics at listeners. Franks said Schundler raised property taxes in Jersey City 79 percent, and Schundler said Franks voted with former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, a man with extremely high residual negative ratings among the state's Republican electorate, 90 percent of the time when he was in the state assembly.
Both statistics were technically accurate, but they were also somewhat misleading. Franks did vote with Florio 90 percent of the time, but the majority of those votes were on noncontroversial matters. Schundler's supposed tax raise came after the six-month "tax holiday" he had granted Jersey City residents, when the tax only went back up to its normal rate.
politicians spent the rest of the month combating the attacks, while
voters largely tuned out the details. The advantage for Schundler,
however, was that the Franks campaign went after one of the achievements
the mayor was most proud of, and gave him a forum to explain the tax
holiday over and over again.
The Schundler campaign soon put out an ad they called "Grace," in which a 77-year-old Jersey City Democrat and Schundler supporter asked listeners, "Bob Franks? Have you heard that ad? There's not a bit of truth to what he's saying."
She went on to say, in a perfect Jersey accent, that "Bob Franks obviously does not know what the heck he's talking about. Bret didn't raise taxes - for five months we didn't pay any property taxes at all. And when we went back to paying regular taxes, he kept them low. That is the truth. Do you think Bret Schundler would have been re-elected by a landslide if there was any truth to that ad at all?"
The Schundler campaign's newest star, Grace Bowen, was a hit, and her ad got good press attention. David Halbfinger, the respected New York Times reporter, said in an adwatch that "the use of Mrs. Bowen's testimonial could prove effective; it certainly sounds unlike any of the other ads now running."
The Schundler campaign saw its poll numbers move upward as the ad played on. But in a Franks radio ad, an announcer presented the counterattack, questioning the accuracy of Grace's claims: "Come on, Bret," the ad said, "The New York Times says Grace is actually a Hudson County Democrat committeewoman, who lives in a taxpayer-subsidized rental. That's right. She doesn't even pay property taxes. The truth is Mayor Schundler has taken over $800 million in aid from Trenton and still raised property taxes in Jersey City. Not only that, city debt's up, government spending's up, water fees are up, even sewer fees are up."
Franks soon came under fire from the Schundler campaign for attacking the elderly woman. It was a clever piece of strategic jujitsu. Lynn Schundler, Bret's wife, appeared in radio ads emphasizing her husband's Jersey City record and expressing disgust that the Franks campaign would attack Grace.
The Schundler response apparently worked well enough, and the mayor's rise in the polls continued. Alfano attributes much of the momentum to Grace: "Had we not done [the ad] we wouldn't have surged. It was the beginning of the end for them."
It was barely four weeks before primary day when the Schundler campaign put all of its regiments into full assault. As Franks struggled to cobble together a consistent campaign theme in the little time he had, the Schundler army mobilized the grassroots battle plan they had been preparing for more than a year - mail, media and ground troops were coordinated like a military engagement.
On the ground, political director Evan Koslow was undertaking a huge effort to coordinate ballots in all 21 counties. In New Jersey, candidates run in "lines" with other candidates, and the party-endorsed candidate is noted. Thus, Franks had a guaranteed "line" - along with all of the party endorsed candidates on the ballot - and therefore had much better ballot placement.
Because of the complicated ballot disadvantage, Koslow worked to find downballot candidates to run with Schundler. He was largely successful as he pieced together ballot positions all over the state.
At the same time, Matt Leonardo continued what he called his "slow march" in the mailbox. What was different about Schundler's mail effort - which became the main medium for the campaign - was the amount of text on each piece. Schundler explained his issue positions on every piece, even those that were designed to visually grab the reader or to attack Franks. "Smaller fonts!" became a mantra in Schundler headquarters.
By the end of the campaign, the Schundler camp would drop 40 pieces altogether. Many described the mayor's Jersey City record, but others explained his stand on tolls, tax cuts or education. Several compared him to President Bush, recalling that Franks did not support Bush's 2000 campaign tax plan when he was running against the liberal Corzine. One depicted Franks with a long, Pinocchio-like nose, while another featured Schundler hanging out of a bus, shaking hands like a rock star with a crowd of fans below him.
Pascoe explains the mail in superlatives: "It is the best mail I have ever seen in a campaign. It's well designed visually and brilliantly designed rhetorically, with a compelling message. It rewrites the rules of campaign communications: rather than short, snappy soundbites, our mail was long and complicated, and treated voters with respect."
Alfano backed up the mail with television spots that emphasized the same themes Schundler had been repeating in his speeches and in the mail pieces. The ads focused mostly on tax cuts, with one citing Ronald Reagan's speech in which he says he "will not compromise" on lowering taxes. The campaign ran the ads mainly during cable news shows but also bought limited time during public affairs shows on network television.
As Schundler executed his tightly organized direct contact campaign, Franks spent the bulk of his available money on network television, a questionable strategy in a state with no local TV market of its own. It is estimated that only about 13 percent of media dollars spent on Philadelphia and New York stations actually reaches New Jersey viewers.
Franks also found himself tracking Schundler's lead on key issues, pledging to eliminate tolls and coming out with a last minute property tax cut plan. The two continued to spar over taxes in the final debates.
But not all went well for the Jersey City underdog. On June 8, a ruling by an administrative law judge said that the funds Schundler used for the scholarship ads the previous fall may have been "improperly arranged" by the campaign. The judge said it was up to state election officials to decide whether he would have to pay back the $885,000 spent on the ads. The ruling was postponed to the Thursday before the election.
Undaunted by the recurring scholarship fund flap, the Schundler campaign kept moving, mailing out sample ballots and pumping up its all-important get-out-the-vote efforts in a primary that would likely have a low turnout.
As the mayor's camp tried to ignore the scholarship fund problem, and the possible financial catastrophe ahead, the Franks campaign launched an all-out assault on Schundler.
Just over a week before the primary, Franks released an ad that featured the judge's ruling, saying that "a New Jersey judge ruled Bret Schundler diverted $885,000 from a children's scholarship charity to pay for TV ads for his political campaign."
The ad went on to say Schundler "actually took charity money," and "cheated kids out of a better future...Taking money from needy kids isn't courageous, it's just wrong."
The New York Times reporter Halbfinger said in an adwatch that "the ad distorts the ruling's text and contradicts testimony in the case. The judge did not find that Mr. Schundler had diverted money from scholarships to ads; he did not even address that question. In fact, the fund's administrator testified that donations were solicited specifically to pay for the ads, and that all donations were accounted for internally to avoid the use of scholarship donations to pay for the commercials."
Halbfinger went on to say that "as attack ads go, this one is about as brutal as they get. It is also misleading. Its effectiveness depends on whether voters will care to see through its misrepresentations and whether they accept the depiction of Mr. Schundler as a needy-kid-cheating, self-promoting scoundrel. The ad's tone could offend voters and turn them against Mr. Franks."
In response, the Schundler campaign released its fourth and final television ad, denouncing Franks for his attack and featuring headlines from four newspapers that criticized the ad.
The campaign also capitalized on Lynn Schundler once again. They sent out a mail piece featuring a picture of the candidate's wife, with a long, detailed letter about why her husband was the best candidate.
On June 20, a new Quinnipiac University poll was released, and it was good news for Schundler. The two candidates were tied at 37 percent among registered voters, and among likely voters, Schundler had a 15 point lead - 54 percent to 39 percent.
These new results with the wide disparity between registered and likely voter samples were surprising to many who had been watching the race, but Quinippiac University poll director Maurice Carroll says they were in line with what was happening in the primary. This was the first time their poll had measured likely voters, and activist conservatives, who were most likely to support Schundler, tend to have a higher turnout than moderates in primaries.
"For the people who actually voted, this was Schundler's from the word 'go,' " said Carroll. "I suppose the results were dramatic, but they were understandable."
Franks responded to the cresting Schundler momentum by calling his former ally an "extremist" whose views on abortion rights and gun control would cost the Republicans the general election.
On June 21, five days before the primary, the Schundler camp received both good news and bad news - but mostly good news: the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission labeled Schundler's scholarship ads political in nature, which was an embarrassment, but said that the campaign did not have to repay the money, which was a God-send.
On election day, the Schundler grassroots effort came out in full force. The campaign, in alliance with the many conservative groups that supported him, made GOTV calls around the state.
Last-minute polls recorded the Schundler surge. Even to the most skeptical observers it now appeared that Schundler had a good shot at nabbing the nomination, unless, of course, a disadvantaged ballot position and the state's GOP power structure could turn out a big Franks vote on election day. But grassroots mobilization is rarely a strong suit for moderate Republicans when battling energized conservatives in the field. And= Schundler had laid the groundwork over time, and his campaign was reaping the benefits of having identified thousands of supporters across the state.
When the votes were counted on the night of June 26th, Schundler had indeed won a victory, but its proportions went beyond what even many of his most enthusiastic supporters expected: he led former frontrunner Franks 57 percent to 43 percent, a sizable 14-point margin.
Schundler's win cannot only be attributed to Franks' hastily organized, and sometimes scattershot, top-down campaign. The Schundler campaign was a grassroots machine, with intense, dedicated volunteers who gave it all they had.
According to Schundler, he won the primary because he set the agenda in a very straightforward way: first, he framed the issues (especially taxes and tolls); second, he educated voters on those issues; third, he stressed his record as reinforcement of his positions on those issues, and fourth, he contrasted himself with his opponent on those issues. "We were at the right place at the right time with the right issues," says Alfano.
Franks supporter and Burlington County Chair Glen Paulson - a high-ranking member of the party organization who was introduced at a recent party fundraiser with the comment that people "vote the way Glen Paulson tells them to vote" - agrees. "Schundler better communicated the property tax message, and that worked with the Republican base," he said.
Aside from the traditional Republican base, Schundler also attracted less traditionally conservative voters with other pitches. The swing vote in New Jersey is usually blue collar, ethnic and Catholic, and many of them supported Schundler for his anti-abortion views. He targeted lower-income voters with his "school choice" proposals, turning the education issue into one of opportunity. The anti-toll message appealed to a broad spectrum of voters fed up with the state's uniquely bothersome and expensive highway charges.
One of the most interesting aspects of Schundler's campaign is that he didn't just communicate his issues and messages with superficial slogans and soundbites. Instead, he dealt in specifics, and made a special point of "educating" voters with lengthy speeches and substantive campaign literature. "I created an army of articulate supporters," said Schundler after the primary. "I explained the nuts and bolts of the issues to them."
Schundler's maverick, anti-machine candidacy was a good antidote for many New Jersey voters who were turned off to the old ways of state politics. The financial controversies surrounding DiFrancesco and Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, who was under federal investigation throughout most of the primary race, didn't hurt.
Unfortunately for Franks, his gubernatorial candidacy never fully took root. Coming off of a statewide election loss only eight months earlier in the Senate race, his campaign's odd blend of top-down establishment support together with a McCain-style reform appeal, never found a footing, or much of a voter base. For Franks, moderation in pursuit of electoral victory was no virtue.
The bottom line of his primary victory, said Schundler, is "showing that solving problems for the people is good politics."
That it was.
But time to bask in the glory of victory was one luxury Bret Schundler's primary win over Bob Franks didn't bring with it. Now he has an even tougher journey ahead of him, toward November, when he faces Democrat Jim McGreevey, who started off with a sizable lead in most polls.
So the feisty mayor from Jersey City begins his general election campaign once again outside looking in, running from a familiar spot: that of underdog. It is the kind of campaign Schundler seems to do best. This time, though, it's for keeps.