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GOP Celebrates Itself -- and Statehouse Aspirations -- at Grand Party in Atlantic City

Assembly Republicans gather in financially strapped resort town to talk politics, policy, and psych themselves up for 2015 elections

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Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno speaks during yesterday's Republican gathering in Atlantic City.

The state’s Assembly Republican minority, often overshadowed by their Democratic counterparts and by a globetrotting Republican governor focused on his presidential aspirations, put on a grand party and rally for themselves at Atlantic City’s Borgata casino last night. The reason for the gala get-together: They hope to wrest a few seats from the majority in this fall’s election.

The convention-like event was the first held by state Republicans in more than two decades. They heard from party eminences like Christie political strategist Michael DuHaime, the governor’s confidante Bill Palatucci, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former U.S. Sen. Jeff Chiesa, and state Sen. Tom Kean (R-Union). They watched prerecorded videos from Gov. Chris Christie, who is away on a trade mission to Britain, and from newly elected U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, the Ocean County Republican who represents the 3rd Congressional District.

While Chertoff talked about presidential leadership and addressing inequality, and Guadagno discussed cutting red tape, the overarching message was that Republicans need to take back the Assembly. It’s a tall order: the GOP holds just 32 of the Assembly’s 80 seats and there are only 1.1 million Republican voters registered statewide, compared with 1.8 million Democrats and 2.6 million independent voters.

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the star and organizer of the 6-hour-long bash, said he’s targeting five Assembly seats he thinks the GOP has a chance of winning back, though he would need a total of nine to retake the majority.

“I wouldn’t argue that based on the math, it’s hard,” Bramnick admitted, while pointing to promising districts in Hudson and Atlantic counties. “We’re going to be ready to play in those districts. And we have some interesting strategies. This is just the beginning. We’ve just begun to fight.”

“We’re going for the majority. I don’t like to come in second. We want 41 seats. We want control. Even the most ardent Democrat, if they really look at the record of the Democrats, they have to admit, they didn’t do the job,” he said.

With no other major races on this fall’s off-year ballot, Assembly contests will top the ticket. The last time that happened, in 1999, turnout was predictably low and Democrats added three seats on their way to winning the majority in 2001.

Some of the speakers sought to find a bright side to voters’ expected apathy this year, saying for example that proportionally more Republicans go to the polls in off years. State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Ocean) urged his fellow Republicans to run for Assembly or work hard for GOP candidates, or at least donate money to their campaigns, arguing that in a low-turnout election each vote has the impact that two votes would in a typical year.

“It’s up to you, each and every one of you,” Thompson told the attendees. “Let’s go to work tomorrow, and work from now to November, and elect Republicans to the Assembly.”

The Governor Is Missing

Christie was conspicuously absent -- he was visiting London on a three-day trade mission as he prepares to launch an expected presidential campaign -- though he appeared in a short video, saying he would love to have a Republican Assembly majority in 2016.

The other speakers mentioned the governor only sporadically, instead using their time to attack Democrats, tout the appeal of their conservative message, and talk about what it takes to win.

Christie’s absence reflects his much-reduced focus on New Jersey over the past year, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“There will be a void in state GOP leadership once Gov. Christie is off the scene. In fact, we see the void today by the fact that the governor is thousands of miles away furthering his own ambitions rather than helping the state party. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out,” Murray explained. “There is already grumbling among state Republicans that Christie has plundered state party coffers for his own political ambition and treated his own caucus with contempt.”

Mentioned far more frequently than Christie was Bramnick, who speakers repeatedly lauded for his leadership and for organizing the gathering at the Borgata. Passaic County Republican chairman John Traier called him a “genius.” Guadagno spoke of a man “whose work in the Legislature paved the way for higher office,” in an apparent teasing reference to both Bramnick’s prospects and to President Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican party.

“From my perspective, he’s a great leader,” former U.S. Sen. Jeff Chiesa, Christie’s former state attorney general, said of Bramnick as he chatted in the area outside the ballroom doors. “I’m privileged to have him as a friend.”

Bramnick is seen as a potential gubernatorial contender in 2017. In remarks before last night’s festivities began, he dismissed a question about whether he put on the event to position himself to succeed Christie, saying the goal was simply to draw attention to the fall election. But Murray said Republicans’ minds were on their next set of leaders.

“This event is billed as a way to boost morale in the state GOP, but in the end this is Jon Bramnick’s show. It is his attempt to establish himself as an heir apparent in the post-Christie era,” Murray said. “The one problem is that Bramnick has been seen as the governor’s primary water carrier in the Legislature. The question remains if this event will help diffuse that unspoken discontent toward Christie and his lieutenants.”

Bramnick made no effort to distance himself from Christie yesterday. He called himself “a big fan” of the governor, saying, “You can’t find a better friend” and describing Christie as “one of the most charismatic human beings I’ve ever met.” Asked about the Port Authority reform bill, which legislators approved unanimously last year but Christie rejected, Bramnick said he was “absolutely” comfortable switching his position to support the governor’s veto.

Bramnick did say that it was helpful that Christie was away because the press would have focused on him instead of the event’s main goal of promoting Republican chances in the November election.

A Challenge from Bramnick

Throughout the evening speakers said they were looking forward to working under Bramnick when Republicans retake the Assembly and he becomes speaker. Bramnick himself issued a challenge to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), asking him to schedule six debates this year between the two of them or between surrogates.

“Anywhere, anyplace, anytime, on his turf, we’ll go anywhere,” Bramnick said. “It’s time the voters of New Jersey get an opportunity to hear our answers to their questions. And the main question is, after almost 15 years of Democratic control in Trenton, do they deserve reelection. And our answer is “no.” They’ve made this state unaffordable. People are leaving the state.”

A spokesman for Prieto dismissed the challenge.

"Speaker Prieto has a full plate dealing with the challenges facing working-class residents in New Jersey and doesn't have time for silly sideshows right now,” spokesman Phil Swibinski said in a statement. “If the Assembly Republicans ever come up with some new ideas he would be happy to hear them out. He's glad however that Minority Leader Bramnick's comedy career finally really looks to be taking off."

Attendees last night also took special care to shower praise on first-term Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), who faces his first reelection contest this year. Brown and others emphasized the message that he is the candidate of working people, including the Borgata workers in the room, as well as the thousands who have lost their jobs in the past year as four Atlantic City casinos have shut down.

“We are fortunate to have some of the finest hospitality professionals in the industry, from the folks who check you in, to the servers and bartenders in the room, and of course the dealers who will take your money later on. I would like if we could take a moment to give these hardworking men and women a round of applause,” Brown said. “They are of course the faces behind the statistics. They are the ones we are here for, the reason we fight so hard.”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican who is counting on Brown to shepherd through legislation helping the financially broken city, credited the assemblyman with advancing projects essential to the resort’s resurrection.

Brown “has fought for the people of Atlantic City and for Atlantic County. He’s concerned about every resident and every job in our southern New Jersey area,” Guardian said. “He fought to get Stockton College here, he fought to get Bass Pro to build a new store here, he fought to bring a new conference center, and by spring, he’s fighting to bring 500 new homes.”

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