By appointing a friend as placeholder to occupy the vacant U. S. Senate seat until October and decreeing that there would be a senatorial primary in August and an election in October, our governor did a masterful job of undermining potential Republican candidates and giving a boost to Democrats. Although the Senate seat has been in the hands of Democrats since 1979 and never was very winnable for Republicans, Christie was all too happy to sacrifice the seat in order to increase his election results in November. He could have appointed someone to hold the seat until late 2014 which would have given the person he chose time to learn the job and launch a campaign. Such an approach would probably have led to a court battle, but if successful it would also have given other Republican candidates time to raise money, increase name recognition and launch a campaign. He could also have saved the state money by holding the election in November, but ultimately he showed us it was all about the governor and the benefits he sought.
He proceeded to order a senatorial primary in August and to require candidates to produce 1,000 petitions and file by this coming Monday. Republican candidates who did not anticipate an election until next year have been caught flat-footed. The last two Republican candidates for the U. S. Senate were State Senators running in an off year. Potential Republican candidates like Sen. John Bramnick (who will not run) and others have their own November campaign to manage. Running two campaigns simultaneously is a nightmare. In last year’s senatorial race incumbent U. S.Senator Robert Menendez raised $12 million and State Senator Joe Kyrillos raised $4.6 million. Unless a Republican candidate with millions to self-finance were to pop out of the woodwork (businessman Joe Plumeri?), there is no candidate who has anywhere near that size war chest now nor the likelihood of raising big bucks in just a few months.
So far the only announced Republican candidate is conservative Steve Lonegan. Until he resigned a few days ago he was State Director of Americans for Prosperity – a supporter of the Tea Party and financed by the Koch brothers. When he ran in the 2009 primary he did not do badly – tallying 140,946 votes versus Chris Christie who got 184,085 votes. In that primary Democrat Jon Corzine received 154,448 votes. Lonegan will be appealing to the far right, but also far from the mainstream New Jersey voter.
Fortunately there are a number of Democrats are who are strong candidates for the Senate. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who polls the best, but has not yet formally announced his candidacy, has made no secret of his interest in the job and is well financed. Rep. Frank Pallone (CD 6), also with a large war chest, has long been interested in the position but has not yet announced his candidacy. The highly respected Rep. Rush Holt (CD 12) has formally entered the ring. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who is weighing her options, would bring a strong, competent woman into the mix.
So in the end it’s all about Christie. He chose to use his gubernatorial power to help himself against his opponent Sen. Barbara Buono. In the process he sacrificed any chance for a Republican Senatorial win and left potential Republican colleagues out to dry and twist slowly in the wind, with plenty of opportunities for Democrats. The final roster of candidates will be known by Monday so stay tuned.