U.S. Sen. Race: Pallone and Holt in, Booker mum, Sweeney out, Bramnick and others mulling

Gov. Chris Christie’s blockbuster announcement Tuesday that the U.S. Senate primary would be held in August has touched off a maelstrom of activity as politicos from both sides of the aisle jockey for a potential bid.

The Democratic field has already begun to shake out with sources telling PolitickerNJ Tuesday that both U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-6) and Rush Holt (D-12) are prepared to run. Both men have some cash – Pallone with more than $3 million and Holt with over $700,000 – and neither faces the loss of his Congressional seat should he lose the primary.

But the elephant in the room remains Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has yet to go public with his intentions. The short runway to the primary does not benefit Booker as his main advantage in any race is his rock star name recognition and fundraising prowess. Give him another year and he could have $6 million at his disposal, but as of now he’s got less in the bank than Pallone.

Still, Booker is a nationally known figure with the likes of Oprah Winfrey in his rolodex, and should he run, he’ll no doubt use every advantage he’s got. There is speculation that Booker could sit out the expedited race and wait until 2014 to throw his hat in the ring. But Democratic strategists spoken to dismissed that idea, saying waiting would give Pallone or Holt or a Republican a year in office, building the power of the incumbency.

Booker is slightly hampered by a promise he made earlier this year to finish out his term in Newark before seeking higher office, but one source described his Senate aspirations as a “train barreling down the track.”

Sources say Senate President Steve Sweeney made calls Tuesday to state Democrats asking them to hold off on deal making and support commitments in the short term while the field shakes out, giving some the idea that the South Jersey Democrat planned to run.

But a source today said Sweeney has no intention of running and made the calls to try to slow the process down to give the party time to assess the situation.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has not yet voiced her intent after saying last year she was interested, but with no apparatus in place and no money she would be a long shot to enter the race. It’s unclear if she would be forced to give up her Assembly seat if she ran.

One insider called the Senate race “South Jersey’s dream” and said the South is strangely quiet.

“A statewide election with a bunch of candidates from the North could give the South an edge if they coalesce around one candidate, but so far, nobody is out there,” the Democrat said. “If Sweeney is out, I’m not sure who that leaves.”

The Republican side of the ledger remains murkier.  Christie is expected to name a successor to U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg any day and the GOP field remains in limbo until he does. Topping the list of early names was former Gov. Tom Kean, but with the expedited primary and October general election it’s doubtful Kean is still in the mix should Christie choose a candidate expected to try to hold the seat.

However, one scenario for Kean would be that of placeholder. The widely respected elder statesman could be the one candidate the governor appoints who would have no interest in running for the seat in October.

Further down on the short list are several names including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Christie could make history appointing Guadagno, who would be the first female senator from New Jersey. Appointing her to the seat would take her off his ticket for re-election, but other names have surfaced to get the LG nod.

Former state Sen. Bill Baroni, who currently serves as the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is an intriguing name and is among those Democrats fear most. He’s a moderate Republican with labor backing, but he hasn’t been in politics in more than three years and the short window could pose an issue.

The list also includes state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13) who mounted a Senate bid last year and lost. State Sen. Kevin O’Toole’s name also has surfaced, as have the names of Assemblymen Jon Bramnick (R-21) and Jay Webber (R-26).  O’Toole and Sen. Tom Kean Jr. have both said they are not interested in running but Wednesday sources said Bramnick had reached out to county chairmen seeking support.

The problem for any of the elected officials is an appointment to the Senate means giving up a state elected post for what some believe would be a Quixotic attempt to hold onto the seat.  

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s name surfaced earlier this week, however as with state elected officials, an appointment to the Senate would mean giving up the seat in the House, a dicey prospect given that New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.  The October general could make the title “senator” short-lived.

Former Mets and Yankees pitcher Al Leiter told ESPN yesterday that he could be interested in a run were he tapped by the governor, and a non-elected appointee such as Leiter, Kean Sr. or Baroni would alleviate the problem of losing a state elected official.

“Who wouldn’t be interested if the governor of your state for whatever reason of their due process thought [you were] worthy, in their opinion?” Leiter, currently an announcer both for the YES Network and the MLB Network, told ESPNNewYork.com. “So, yeah, I would be interested.” 

Former gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan is reportedly in and has the backing of conservative state Sen. Michael Doherty.

The road to the Senate for anyone without infrastructure in place is hampered by the short window. Petitions are due Monday and potential candidates need 1,000 signatures. That gives all candidates just six days to gather the required support and two months to ramp up a campaign. For Republicans waiting on Christie, that timeline is narrowed further as the governor is not expected to announce his choice before tomorrow at the earliest.

Putting a statewide infrastructure in place for a two-month run also is an uphill climb for most candidates, unless, like Lonegan, they have run statewide before or like House members, they cover a wide geography.

It’s unlikely that any of the so-called “Christie people,” a list that includes Kyrillos, Bramnick and Baroni, would challenge Christie’s choice in a primary, should the governor choose a candidate intent on holding the seat and not a placeholder, leaving only Doherty, Lonegan and any other candidate with little allegiance to the governor.

With just two months between filing and primary, the race is likely to be bloody as Pallone, Holt and potentially Booker seek to define each other. Booker will no doubt face criticism from his opponents for “helping make Chris Christie,” as one strategist put it.

“There have to be 200 clips out there of Booker palling around with Christie and there’s no doubt people are already digging those up,” one strategist said.  “And with the short timeframe, Cory can’t keep raising money from Mars for his run so it evens things out.”

On the Republican side, a race featuring Lonegan backed by Doherty would likely center on fiscal conservatism.

Another specter haunting the process is that of a challenge to Christie’s decision to hold an expedited primary. Several groups were reportedly circling with the intent of filing a court challenge as early as tomorrow. Should the issue go to court, it will further shorten the process and should team Christie lose, could land the election in November.