Kean knew that 2013 was the best shot Republicans would have at winning the Senate, because Christie was at the top of the ticket on his way to a blowout reelection victory over Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), and it was definitely Kean’s best shot at becoming Senate president.
The Democratic legislative map chosen two years ago by the late Alan Rosenthal, the independent tie-breaker for the New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Commission, left only six districts that were even marginally competitive. The GOP, which held 16 seats in the 40-member Senate, needed to pick up five of those six seats -- and three of them were in South Jersey.
Christie was content to put some late money into trying to defeat Democratic Sen. Robert Gordon in Bergen County’s 38th District, Sen. Linda Greenstein in the 14th District’s Mercer and Middlesex County suburbs, and Assemblyman Peter Barnes, who was running for the 18th District Middlesex County seat vacated by Buono.
All three Democrats were reelected by margins ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 votes, and the governor’s strategists reasoned that the GOP might have picked up one or more of those seats if Kean had simply focused Republican Senate money in those races. Eliminating three liberal Democratic votes would have made it easier for Christie to pass his second-term legislative agenda.
But Kean needed five seats, not three seats, for a Republican Senate majority. Republicans could have tried to pick up Democratic defectors like Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the Union City mayor who endorsed Christie. That’s what Kean’s father, the future governor, did 40 years ago when he cut a deal with six Hudson County Democrats to gain the speakership. But that strategy was risky, especially considering how close Sweeney was to Christie.
“With or without defections, you can’t roll the dice on competing for just three seats,” Murray said. “You have to go for all of them.”
So while Christie’s South Jersey forays consisted of ribbon-cuttings at medical centers and colleges with Sweeney and Norcross, where they would lavish praise on one another for their bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of New Jersey, Kean was down south campaigning with Nikki Trunk, the lawyer he personally recruited to run against Sweeney.
Trunk, of course, was excluded from the Christie-Sweeney events, which were “governmental,” not “political.” But just as Christie’s joint appearance with Newark Mayor Cory Booker soon after Booker won his special election to the U.S. Senate undermined Buono, the fact that Christie was on stage with Sweeney -- not Trunk -- sent a political message to voters.
Kean also worked hard for Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles in his challenge to Sen. James Whelan (D-Atlantic), and also went after Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), whose campaign ads lauding Christie’s cooperation in undoing the planned closure of the Vineland Developmental Center in his district could easily have been mistaken for Republican campaign ads.
Christie’s choice to replace Kean was O’Toole, an across-the-aisle ally of DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, and Stack, who were the most important of more than 50 Democratic elected officials who publicly endorsed Christie. An O’Toole victory would have been a consolation prize for DiVincenzo’s loss of Oliver in the Assembly speaker’s chair.
O’Toole was backed most prominently by Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), a longtime Christie friend who cochaired his 2009 gubernatorial campaign and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Sources said O’Toole also had Sens. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) and Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) from the conservative “Mountain Man” northwest corner of the state, and Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset). Christie personally called Sens. Diane Allen and Dawn Addiego (both R-Burlington) into his office to lobby them to support O’Toole. Addiego did, but Allen refused.