In a forum last Thursday sponsored by Campaigns & Elections, Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics hosted campaign strategists and managers to discuss the special election held last November in New Jersey’s 14th state Senate district.
 
In the race, appointed Sen. Tom Goodwin (R) faced then-Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D) in a contest to complete the term of Senator Bill Baroni (R), who had been tapped by Gov. Chris Christie to become the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The district, which includes the Trenton suburbs of Hamilton Township, Plainsboro and South Brunswick, is traditionally competitive with a slight Democratic lean.
 
As just one of two contested New Jersey Senate elections held last year, the race was hard fought and generally seen as a proxy war pitting supporters of Christie’s budget cutting and union busting against those of public sector unions. In the end, Greenstein won with 54 to 46 percent.
 
Hosted by Rebovich Institute Director Ben Dworkin, the forum featured reflections on the race by top staffers from the opposing campaigns. Mike Muller, Greenstein’s campaign strategist, described how the campaign localized the race and motivated its base by contrasting the philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats to overcome the strongly anti-Democratic mood that characterized the election cycle. The campaign identified the most partisan, reliable Democratic voters in the district—blue collar workers and women—and reached out to them directly. The campaign also used its two-to-one fund-raising advantage to transmit twice as many cable ads and pieces of direct mail as Goodwin’s campaign. By emphasizing Greenstein’s opposition to former Gov. Corzine’s proposed sales tax increase, the campaign managed to appeal to some conservative Democrats and independents as well.
 
Scott Snyder, Greenstein’s campaign manager, said that while he constantly monitored polls, he often ignored the horse-race numbers, which had Greenstein down by single digits on several occasions after Labor Day. These results would not prompt a change in campaign strategy, he reasoned, and would only lead to second guessing their sampling strategy.
 
One key point in the campaign, according to Muller and Snyder, was a mailer the Greenstein camp sent out criticizing Goodwin’s record on women’s health care, which the Goodwin camp took almost two weeks to respond to. “We owned that issue,” said Muller. “By the time Goodwin responded to it, we had already moved on to other things.”
 
Goodwin’s campaign manager, Matt Mowers, said that he and his colleagues believed that responding to the mailer wasn’t worth the effort because it would take them off message and because polling on the issue revealed that it resonated with only 19 percent of voters—a figure that Muller and Snyder disputed.
 
Mowers said that the Goodwin campaign’s early momentum was countered by the fact that the district lies within the Philadelphia media market, and as such was subjected to a steady diet of material critical of Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. He believes that this material strongly motivated liberal women to turn out and vote against Goodwin. Furthermore, Mowers said, while the Goodwin campaign anticipated very low turnout, which would benefit the Goodwin campaign due to New Jersey Democrats’ two-to-one advantage in registered voters. In the end, however, nearly 50 percent of registered voters turned out.
 
According to Mower, one of the challenges that Goodwin faced was the belief of insiders that he could not survive a general election. In order to combat this perception and generate traction, the campaign tested a message supporting the repeal of Kyleigh’s Law, a state ordinance that requires young drivers with a learner’s permit to place a red sticker on their license plate. Mower found that parents, particularly mothers, thought the sicker amounted to a target on their children’s backs. Goodwin generated significant earned media off this stance, including an appearance on Good Day New York. However, in the long term, the issue did not track. Mowers touted the campaign’s grassroots organization and its early start mobilizing volunteers, but at the end of the day, it’s efforts came up short.
 
The special election postmortem was just one in a series of talks featuring political players and policy makers. Upcoming guests at the Rebovich Institute include former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean on February 23; New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez on March 22; and former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne on April 14. All events are free and open to the public.
 
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com