The End for Kean?

As is its custom, Quinnipiac University released the final poll of the New Jersey campaign season yesterday, pegging Robert Menendez’s lead over Tom Kean Jr. at five points, 48 to 43 percent. This corresponds roughly to the findings of perhaps a dozen other recent polls, all of which gave the appointed Democrat leads – as high as ten points.

And so it appears that the New Jersey GOP will extends its losing streak in U.S. Senate races to 11. Which raises the question of what’s next for Kean, a 38-year-old political legacy whose charmed ascension in politics now faces an abrupt detour.

The easiest answer is that he’ll be back. He’s young, after all, possesses a beloved New Jersey surname, and had the misfortune of running in the most toxic year imaginable for a Republican. And, anyway, it’s an unofficial Garden State tradition that losing statewide candidates get second chances (Jim McGreevey, Christine Todd Whitman, and Jim Florio are a few members of this club).

But there’s a compelling case that campaign ’06 will mark Junior’s last hurrah. For one thing, this race has confirmed that there are deep and incorrigible flaws in his public style. Kean is exceptionally slow on his feet, and is incapable of convincingly selling the talking points his handlers force-feed him . And he has failed miserably to mask any of these shortcomings with good humor, charm, or even the occasional chortle-worthy quip. As a candidate for office, he is badly miscast. It is hard to imagine that he has enjoyed running for statewide office – why would he go through this again?

Even if he wanted to seek a high-profile office again, there may not be many chances for him. Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat is up in 2008, and the 82-year-old is on course to seek a fifth term. And recent elections have proven that New Jersey voters (or at least 55 percent of them) like their Democrats – particularly the relatively inoffensive ones like Lautenberg. After that, there’s the governorship in 2009, when Jon Corzine will presumably seek re-election. Almost certainly, that would be a bad option for Kean, too, since only once in state history has an incumbent governor (Florio in 1993) been defeated for re-election – and even then, it was by an exceedingly slim margin and under very trying political circumstances.

And the longer Kean waits before taking another shot, the more ambitious Republicans will join him in line. It’s still widely assumed, for instance, that a statewide campaign is in U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s future.

There is one interesting scenario for Kean, though. If the Democratic tide is especially strong tonight, 7th District Congressman Michael Ferguson — who once beat Kean in a House primary — could be dislodged from his seat by Democrat Linda Stender. Given the suburban, central Jersey district’s partisan leanings (President Bush carried it in both 2000 and 2004), Stender would instantly be certified as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the 2008 cycle. In other words, it might be a tempting campaign for Kean, who lives in the district and might actually win.

– Steve Kornacki