MORRISTOWN, N.J. — The head of the Republican National Committee drove five hours from Washington to New Jersey's Morris County Tuesday afternoon to campaign for Steve Lonegan, the Tea Party candidate in Wednesday's special Senate election, and to preach a message of party unity.
Reince Priebus, the RNC's chairman, told a crowd of about 250 supporters that a Senator Lonegan would help "unify" Congress and "bring our party together," he said, referencing both Tea Party leaders and establishment Republicans, who have been at odds in the last two weeks amidst a federal government shutdown over President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Priebus has embraced the conservatives leading the movement to defund the health care legislation. He told Breitbart News Monday that House Republicans should keep up the "fight for what the American people want," and two weeks ago, he backed Sen. Ted Cruz's efforts in an email headed, "I stand with Ted."
On the Morristown Green, a park the campaign selected for its historical role in the Revolutionary War as an encampment for George Washington, Priebus's message on Obamacare was much the same. Introducing Lonegan on a brightly lit stage, Priebus hollered out to the crowd, "Are you ready to elect someone who wants to defund Obamacare?" The audience cheered.
But Priebus' speech Tuesday night focused largely on party unity.
"I want to make you proud of this party," he said. "It's a grind, but it's worth it," he added, laughing.
Lonegan, trailing Newark Mayor Cory Booker by a little more than 10 points in recent polling, is a conservative candidate with broad support from Tea Party leaders, including, most recently, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. He has advocated for the privatization of social security, called for the Internal Revenue Service to be dismantled, and opposes same-sex marriage and abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. When Lonegan won the Republican primary in the special Senate race earlier this year, the national Democratic groups cast him as the "new face of the 'rebranded' GOP."
After the rally, Priebus dismissed the idea that Lonegan is too conservative a candidate for the mainstream Republican Party. "In order for the party to grow, we need to keep building, and we bring everybody in," Priebus told BuzzFeed before heading home to Washington. "It doesn't matter where you're at — if we want our party to grow, we have to have a party that is consistent, that promotes all of our candidates."
Before leaving the green, Priebus was approached by an attendee who asked how he could stop Republicans in Washington from "bashing each other," she said. "It's wrong. It's just wrong."
"Well, what we have to do, is we have to build unity all the time," Priebus responded. "You have to promote everybody. Listen, that's why I supported John Boehner. I stood up for Ted Cruz two weeks ago," he said, also citing Monday's Breitbart article, which was headlined, "Reince Priebus to House GOP: Hold The Line in Fiscal Fight."
"I just think we have to be a party for everyone," Priebus said.
Recent polls, however, show a divide persists. A survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found last week that 75% of Tea Party Republicans approve of their party representation in Congress, while only 42% of non-Tea Party Republicans approve.
Lonegan, speaking after Priebus, predicted victory in Wednesday's election that, he promised, would propel conservatives forward in Washington.
"The nation tomorrow night will be rocked," Lonegan said. "Because here in New Jersey, we are going to set the stage to reignite the conservative movement of Ronald Reagan, reestablish this nation as the greatest nation in the world, and put our ship back on track toward real liberty and real prosperity."
Earlier on Tuesday, at appearances across the northern half of the state, Booker argued Lonegan was not in step with voters here, or with the majority of Republicans in New Jersey, including Gov. Chris Christie.
"I don't think our state has ever had such a clear choice," Booker said during a stop at a senior center in Newark.
"This is a guy who's not even in the mainstream of the Republican Party," Booker added. "I've heard from Republicans after Republicans now, do we want to send another right-wing Tea Party radical down to Washington, D.C., to shut down the government, grind the gears of Congress to a halt, to be in that gridlock environment?"
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ruby Cramer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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