Governor Chris Christie’s decision to hold an August primary for New Jersey’s special Senate election has infuriated Garden State Republicans, since it leaves only two rushed months for contenders to raise money and campaign.
Behind the scenes, candidates are declining to run, donors are wary, and operatives say the seat is out of reach.
“He burned us,” says a New Jersey Republican consultant. “He could have appointed a senator to stay through 2014. Instead, he gave us a weird little primary during beach season.”
Many of the Republicans who have been mentioned as possible candidates, such as state senator Tom Kean Jr., lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno, and state senator Joe Kyrillos, are privately telling their friends that they probably won’t run.
On Wednesday, state senator Michael Doherty, a prominent backer of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, decided to sit out the race, owing to the compressed calendar. State senator Kevin O’Toole, a popular New Jersey lawmaker, did the same. “If the special election was in November 2014, instead of October, it’d be a different situation,” O’Toole says in a phone interview. “That said, I fully support the governor.”
“If you’re not ready to launch a statewide campaign, it’s a difficult proposition,” explains John Bennett, a former New Jersey state senator and a member of the state Republican committee. “Right now, the cost factor is a deterrent for a lot of people.”
So is the filing deadline, which comes less than a week after Christie’s announcement. If you want to run, you have to have your petition, along with 1,000 signatures, submitted by June 10.
An August primary also means low turnout, which will likely benefit a conservative candidate. Christie’s allies in the capital, many of whom are centrists, aren’t eager to take part in a potentially messy clash with tea-party activists.
The prospect of fighting a rough-and tumble primary campaign, only to have to face off in October against a well-financed Democrat, such as Newark mayor Cory Booker or Congressman Frank Pallone, is another reason for the hesitation.
Enter Steve Lonegan. As skittish Republicans consider their options, the former Bogota mayor is collecting signatures and putting together a campaign. His aides say that Christie, to their surprise, has given them an unprecedented opening.
In an interview on Wednesday, Lonegan told National Review that he believes he is poised to win the Republican Senate nomination, and wondered aloud whether he’ll have competition.
“I’ll rise to the occasion,” said Lonegan, a former Americans for Prosperity adviser who has twice run unsuccessfully for governor. “If some moderate Republican gets in, then so be it, but I’m confident that I can galvanize the grassroots.”
But for now, the field beyond Lonegan remains empty. Kyrillos and Tom Kean Jr. haven’t officially bowed out of consideration, but sources close to both say they’re leaning against it. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a Christie ally, has made calls to power brokers about a run, but he remains undecided.
“In October, it could very well be Lonegan against Booker, which would just be a disaster for the party,” says a Trenton insider. “He’s New Jersey’s version of Christine O’Donnell.”
Other New Jersey Republicans are more blasé about the Senate race. The real focus in the state, as ever, is on the gubernatorial race and the state-legislature races. Since the GOP hasn’t won a Senate race for years, there’s a tendency to shrug it off.
“All of the money is going toward the state races,” says a Republican donor close to Christie. “If people are donating, they’re donating to the governor. If there’s any real money in this race, it’ll have to come from Washington, D.C.”
Back at the state capitol, sources close to Christie say the outcry is misplaced. They argue that the October special-election date actually benefits the GOP, since the nominee will be able to carve out a singular campaign focused on national issues.
But the fury toward Christie, at least among conservatives hoping to win a Senate seat in New Jersey for the first time since 1972, may linger long after the special election. Some of them are pleased with Lonegan’s candidacy, but many were hoping that a bigger, more electable name would run.
“We’ll remember how Christie made this impossible,” says Seth Grossman, a former Atlantic County freeholder. “He chose to survive by moving the Senate race away from his own race, which has sucked the life out of our party.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.