For conservative Steve Lonegan, the U.S. Senate race could not be shaping up better, and he can thank Chris Christie, the man who defeated him in the Republican primary for governor four years ago.
Christie, who decided that New Jersey would pick its next senator in a pair of low-turnout special elections in mid-August and mid-October, followed that up yesterday by choosing Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to replace the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) on a fill-in basis for the next five months instead of picking a candidate who would take advantage of his newfound incumbency to run for the seat.
For Lonegan, the only declared GOP candidate for the Lautenberg seat, Christie’s choice of Chiesa not only indicates that Christie, one of the most powerful Republicans in the nation, may sit out the Republican primary, but also that Lonegan could actually end up running unopposed — a prospect that political experts would have found shocking earlier in the week.
“I don’t care who runs,” Lonegan said yesterday. “I’m totally focused on getting my signatures in by Monday and raising money. I was endorsed today by Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin, and that’s my home county and the biggest county in the state. I’m going to galvanize conservatives, Tea Party people, independents, and Reagan Democrats, and whoever runs in the primary or general election, I’m going to beat them.”
Lonegan said Christie’s decision to set a tight election schedule — with 1,000 signatures due on nominating petitions by Monday, shortened primary and general election campaigns, and Senate-only election days on August 13 and October 16 — clearly works in his favor.
“I already have an organization in place, and I have 100 volunteers across New Jersey gathering signatures right now at shopping centers,” said Lonegan, the longtime leader of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “With a primary in August, it’s a question of who can mobilize his base to get out and vote in the dog days of August.”
Similarly, Lonegan believes he can turn out his committed conservative base to vote on a rare Wednesday Election Day in October.
The failure of New Jersey’s moderate Republican establishment so far to field a strong candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat — and Christie’s failure to push one of his Republican allies in Congress or the state Legislature into the race — puzzled political scientists.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) yesterday morning became the latest in a series of prominent GOP officeholders to formally take themselves out of the running for the Lautenberg seat. His announcement followed similar declarations by Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) and Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), the last two GOP U.S. Senate nominees, and Congressman Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), and a slew of other likely candidates.
“What I don’t understand is why doesn’t somebody like [Republican Congressmen] Scott Garrett or Frank LoBiondo get into the race. They already have a lot of money raised,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Garrett’s decision is more understandable: Lonegan shares Garrett’s conservative positions, and Lonegan already has the endorsement of the state’s two most conservative legislators, Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris).
“This is really a testament to the governor’s personal appeal and the reality that the Republican Party in the state of New Jersey lacks the on-the-ground organization that could effectively elect any other Republican in a statewide race,” said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist.
“This is one of the rare occurrences where there is an open seat for the U.S. Senate,” she noted. “The governor already has a political structure on the ground and could do a test run in October in the special Senate election. The fact that the governor is unwilling to do this and is apparently willing to allow the Lonegan candidacy to go forward means that this is about a cult of personality rather than a political transformation.”
Harrison and Murray both said Christie’s decision to appoint Chiesa as a “placeholder” for five months once again showed the governor’s propensity to appoint lawyers with whom he had worked to key positions, and “Chiesa is the candidate he has the most control over of anyone he could have picked.”
More important, it showed that Christie did not think the Senate campaign was winnable. Once he decided that, it was an easy choice to make sure that the Senate election was not held on the same date as his November 5 gubernatorial election, thus keeping a popular Democrat like Newark Mayor Cory Booker or Congressmen Frank Pallone or Rush Holt from helping Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) in her uphill governor’s race against him.
Christie may not think the Senate race is very winnable, but don’t try telling that to Lonegan.
“I can raise a ton of money on the message of Obama’s failed agenda regardless of whether it’s Booker or Pallone or [Assembly Speaker Sheila] Oliver,” Lonegan said, referring to reports that supporters of the Essex County Democrat began collecting petitions for her potential candidacy yesterday too.
“There’s nothing I would like better than a one-on-one race in October with the nation watching,” he said. “I look forward to engaging these rather shallow liberal politicians. I would like to see Frank Pallone as the candidate because he was a prime sponsor of the Obamacare bill that is going to crush the economy. Booker has a Twitter feed, but failed policies as a Newark mayor. I look forward to debating Dodd-Frank, cap-and-trade, Benghazi, and all the failures of the Obama administration.”