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Sweeney Victory Tour Underscores Status as Gubernatorial Frontrunner

Tuesday wins, Senate presidency, and South Jersey fund-raising prowess make him the early favorite

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney

Fifteen hours after Gov. Chris Christie used his reelection victory rally to state his case for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) staged a four-county victory tour of his own that effectively opened the next campaign for governor.

The only question is, what year?

That, of course, depends on Christie, whose expected presidential bid could put Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the governor’s office and set up a special election in November 2016, a year before Christie is scheduled to leave office.

“There’s no question Christie’s running for president,” Sweeney declared emphatically, but brushed off repeated questions about his own plans.

Sweeney, the second most powerful elected official in New Jersey over the past four years, emerged from Tuesday’s election as the second-biggest winner after Christie, holding all 24 Democratic Senate seats despite a Christie landslide over Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and setting hims up as the favorite for the next Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“We got hit with a tidal wave, and we weathered it,” Sweeney said with satisfaction yesterday afternoon at a victory gathering in East Brunswick with Sens. Linda Greenstein and Peter Barnes (both D-Middlesex) and their running mates.

For Sweeney, it was the second stop of a 225-mile circuit that started with a Trenton press conference marking passage of the constitutional amendment he sponsored to raise the minimum wage. From East Brunswick, he went north to Fair Lawn for a victory meeting with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sens. Paul Sarlo and Robert Gordon (all D-Bergen) and then all the way down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic County for a celebration with Sens. James Whelan (D-Atlantic) and Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May).

The series of Sweeney-sponsored events drew a string of reporters and camera crews eager to look past Tuesday’s election and Christie’s presidential chances to the next gubernatorial election, in which Sweeney would be the early frontrunner.

“Sweeney certainly has the highest profile at present,” said Daniel J. Douglas, director of Stockton College's William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. “No one else measures up in terms of statewide name recognition, including members of Congress, who are generally unknown outside their districts.”

That was demonstrated in the August 13 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, in which Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt (both D-N.J.), two longtime members of Congress, were trounced by Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a race that underscored their lack of name recognition. Rep. William Pascrell (D-N.J.) would be a fiery candidate, but he and the other congressmen would have to give up their House seats if a Christie resignation set up a 2016 race, while 2017 would be a free shot, as it was for Pallone and Holt this year.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is the latest Democratic wunderkind, but just took office six months ago. Booker, who ran an indifferent campaign and won his Senate seat by a narrower margin than expected in an October 16 special election, will have to run for Senate again in 2014. If Booker decided to run for governor two or three years later against Sweeney, he would not be able to count on the support he received from most Democratic counties when he launched his U.S. Senate bid last June.

“The South Jersey folks are comfortable with Sweeney, which makes it easy for him to negotiate in the Legislature because he knows he has a significant number of votes he can count on,” Douglas said, referring to the 18 seats out of 21 held by Democrats in seven districts covering Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, and southern Burlington counties.

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