Perhaps as payback, maybe to weaken his statewide standing, GOP mulls challenge to Pallone

A 20-year incumbent with $4 million cash on hand – by far the largest war chest of the state's congressional delegation – Pallone is the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee. He serves in the Democratic leadership (as communications chair of the Democratic Policy Committee). Democrats have a near 3-1 registration edge in his district, although GOP Gov.-elect Christopher Christie carried it last month. And he's considered a leading contender for the United States Senate, should Democrats be in need of a candidate anytime soon.

Republicans would now like to take Pallone down a peg, or at least force him to spend some of that war chest.

"It's still early. We're not at the resource allocation point, but given the way that the shore went for Christie, and given the national attitude towards Democrats in DC, it's really anyone's ballgame," said Joe Sciarrino, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Pallone's home county of Monmouth produced a massive plurality for Christie. But Pallone's environmental record on shore issues makes him popular in a county where Gov. Jon Corzine was toxic.

Republican lobbyist Jeff Michaels, chief of staff to former Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco, openly mused about whether Pallone is suddenly vulnerable in a column for this Web site.

Most Republicans admit that taking out Pallone is highly unlikely. But privately, some GOP insiders think it would be helpful to bloody up one of the Democrats' most viable potential statewide candidates. And his vocal support of President Obama's health care bill could get national Republicans interested.

There could be a revenge element to a challenge as well. During the gubernatorial race, Pallone chaired Corzine's reelection campaign. And long before the race officially began, while Christie was still the U.S. Attorney, Pallone became the first elected official to openly criticize him for giving lucrative federal monitoring contracts to friends and former colleagues. He authored legislation reforming meant to reform the way those contracts were doled out, which led to a congressional subcommittee grilling of Christie that Christie called a "circus" shortly after finishing his testimony.

But there is not a long list of candidates eager to take Pallone, whose most recent serious recent was in 1998, against Mike Ferguson, who went on to be elected in a different district.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) would probably be the GOP's number one pick, but she's not interested.

"No. Not at all," said Beck when asked if she would consider running. "I'm certainly flattered that my name is out there, but I'm really very focused on the difficult job we have ahead."

Still, Beck said that "based on the results of our last election day, certainly Democrats are vulnerable."

"While Frank is a very popular congressman, a lot of his district is not supportive of the things that are happening in Washington," Beck told PolitickerNJ.com.

Prominent Republicans who live in Pallone's district include Assemblywomen Amy Handlin (R-Middletown) and Mary Pat Angelini (R-Ocean Twp.), Monmouth County Freeholder Robert Clifton, Monmouth County GOP Chairman Joseph Oxley; and Sayreville Mayor Kennedy O'Brien.

Pallone Communications Director Richard McGrath — who was hired in part to help Pallone increase his statewide profile — said that he takes buzz about putting up a serious challenge to Pallone as a "badge of honor."

"As his prominence and influence increases, he becomes more of a political target," he said. "We won't take any election for granted, but right now he's focused on getting his job done on health care, jobs, the economy, shore protection and other issues. We'll be ready for any and all challenges."

Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray said that he's heard buzz about putting up a serious challenge to Pallone as well.

"You think about where it's all coming from – potentially in the state, to weaken someone who's a known fundraiser, who could potentially make a challenge for statewide race. You have folks nationally, particularly on the conservative wing, who would like to take out a congressional leader. And we've seen national money pour into local race when there's an ideological issue at stake. All that makes a lot of sense," said Murray. "If you know someone who's building a war chest and you know they're not going to use it for their current office but for a higher office, try to make them spend some of that."

But barring a massive scandal or a wholesale political turnabout, Murray doesn't think Pallone is in much danger of losing his seat.

"It's either you take a position on an issue that turns out to be hugely unpopular, or you're caught with your hand in the till. And right now, neither of those seems likely to happen," he said.

 

Perhaps as payback, maybe to weaken his statewide standing, GOP mulls challenge to Pallone