The potential candidacy of Richard Pezzullo for the U.S. Senate reminds me of an important lesson for first-term Governors: pay attention to the base.
During Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s first term, she explored creating a bigger tent for Republicans. That’s what she believed. At the start of her 1997 campaign, she was popular enough, with a 54%-43% approval rating in a February Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll. In September, the same poll had Whitman ahead of State Sen. Jim McGreevey by twelve points. She won re-election by just 1% — a margin of 25,426 votes.
Among the reasons for her close call was the presence of two conservative candidate son the general election ballot: Libertarian Murray Sabrin, the first independent candidate for Governor of New Jersey to qualify for matching funds (and in a pretty good campaign run by Rick Shaftan); and Pezullo, who ran under what used to be the New Jersey Conservative Party banner. Sabrin received 4.7% and Pezzullo got 1.4%.
Combined, Sabrin and Pezzullo, running to the right of an incumbent Republican Governor, took 149,078 votes. If Whitman had retained just half of those votes, she would have beaten McGreevey by a solid 100,000 — and New Jersey political history would likely have been altered significantly.