Christie looms over redistricting and coming legislative contests, where GOP craves five seats

The roads of Republican redistricting and 2011 campaign strategy all lead back to the Trenton front office where Gov. Chris Christie wields a Teddy Roosevelt-sized club and wants legislative wins.

Raw numbers and compliant Democratic Party organizations in South Jersey and Essex County suggest Christie may be more likely to bunker bust in the 36th District, for example, where GOP foe state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) makes an obvious target, or the 18th, where an intensified Republican effort against state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) could sap her nascent 2013 gubernatorial aspirations.

Then there’s the 37th District, where iconic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) poses an ideological counterweight to the governor; or the 27th, where a fatally redistricted state Sen. (and former Governor) Richard Codey (D-Roseland) could at once fulfill a local vendetta for state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove) (who sits on the redistricting committee), light a Democratic Party funeral pyre symbolically helpful to the current governor, and quell a caucus laugh track injurious to the sitting senate president.

Just as significantly, redistricting questions too hover around state Sen. John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne) and state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Fair Lawn), who lack go-to-the mat allies on the Democrats’ redistricting team.

But Republicans down 16-24 in the upper chamber quietly insist they can have all or some of that northern play and a chunk of South Jersey besides – Districts 1 through 4 – including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), that region’s ironworker archetype and most accomplished statewide presence.

Freeholder victories in South Jersey in the last election, including two in Sweeney’s own Gloucester County, signify Republican opportunities in historically Hap Farley country, says GOP State chairman Jay Webber.

“The Republican party is committed to getting majorities next year,” Webber told PolitickerNJ.com. “It’s too early to talk about specific races, but the party as a whole is committed to getting a majority.”

No one is sacred, no one is off limits – including Sweeney, said Webber.

“We’ll get Republicans elected to the senate,” said the chairman, who – like Christie – wants to attain that magic 21 for a Republican senate majority. The presence of Christie consigliere Bill Palatucci on the GOP redistricting team (made official earlier this month) at the very least immediately signaled the governor’s eagerness to intimately embrace the process.

Embedded in the City of Camden, 5th District state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) will likely have no significant challenge. On the other side of the South Jersey demographic spectrum, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to beat up Republicans in a Republican district.

“It’s going to boil down to the governor saying you’re not doing everything they say we should do in our district, but we have always been independent,” said Van Drew. “Look at the toll roads. I was one of the first people to speak against it. I’m really fiscally conservative.

“He has a different demeanor, he plays harder, but we’re actually similar on the issues,” Van Drew added of the governor. “While we need to make significant change, I do believe we need to bring the affected players to the table more; yes, the public employee unions. I think we can do this together more. The governor is a little more more combative and confrontational, yet the substance: the way we budget and deal with regulatory functions and the tunnel, for example, is the same.”

But then there are three South Jersey question marks: state Sen. Fred Madden, state Sen. Jim Whelan, and Sweeney.

Trailing two glaring Gloucester County losses, Sweeney on the face of it presents arguably a bigger than usual target for the GOP.

“We lost an election,” Sweeney acknowledged of Nov. 2nd and Republican freeholder wins by Larry Wallace and Vince Nestore. “I accept the fact of what was going on nationally. We got caught up in a storm. I ran as a freeholder when Obama ran and I beat Larry Wallace by 22,000 votes. They’re happy, Republicans. They’re excited about what happened here. But we couldn’t control that. We’re a strong organization. This is a Reagan Democratic district, and I’m a Reagan Democrat. I’ve been accused of being on the conservative side, but I see myself as a centrist and a realist.

“He’s taken the discussion out of New Jersey and a lot of his decisions are based on national politics not New Jersey politics,” Sweeney said of the governor.

Like his South Jersey colleague Van Drew, Sweeney takes credit for adopting tough stances on issues, including pension reform, prior to Christie’s arrival in the governor’s office, and does not apologize for joining forces with the governor where he believes there are legitimate correspondences.

“As a senate president, I don’t like gridlock,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t want Washington politics here. I didn’t come to the table with an attitude that ‘he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican.’ As senate president, I wanted to get things done. Governing is not about ‘he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.’ The people of New Jersey can’t be punished because people want to advance their profile.”

Interrogated on the subject of next year’s elections, Gloucester County Republican Chairman Bill Fey quickly pointed out that his county supplies the political life blood for at least two state senators: not just Sweeney, but also Madden.

“I represent a group of people who want to see the county in a better place,” Fey said. “For far too long Gloucester County has been a hotbed of nepotism.

“I believe Steve Sweeney still has a very strong base,” added the chairman. “It’s just that Republicans are more viable now than in the last decade. People are more concerned about where their dollars are going. It’s never too early for people to express interest. We have three senate seats, six assembly seats and three freeholder seats up next year. We have a bunch of races. There is a process we will put in place.”

Significantly, no Republican has announced his intentions to oppose Sweeney (a surprise attack later?), while Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco in the neighboring 4th District told PolitickerNJ.com he’s giving a run serious consideration. Republicans have already vocally positioned Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor Twp.) in the 2nd against Whelan.

If the GOP needs five seats to win Christie’s coveted majority, early, very preliminary indicatons are they will try to pick up one in Ocean on a trade for eliminating a seat up north – likely Codey, maybe Girgenti or Gordon, aggressively pursue Whelan and Madden in the south, and target Sarlo and Buono and/or district-tinkered Girgenti and Gordon depending on how well Sarlo holds and builds on his own 36th District strength through the redistricting process.

Sitting on over $2 million, confident of his chances if he’s redistricted into Morris County, and not past appealing to this sitting governor’s sense of political decorum and the argument that former governors shouldn’t be hard targets – yet deprived by his own party of a seat on the redistricting committee this year (he didn’t want it anyway) and outside the new order – Codey will exhaust every political survival mechanism at his disposal, sources say. Van Drew and even Sweeney could be in play.

Pre-redistricting – an atmosphere that renders everything fluid – could yield to other opportunities. Webber and State Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski will meet in the coming days to arrange a sit-down among redistricting members before Christmas, but an aggressive GOP imprint through two phases – the maps and then the campaigns – will finally be Christie’s.

Sweeney said don’t discount his party.

“25 would be good,” said the senate president, referring to a Democratic senate pick up of one.

Christie looms over redistricting and coming legislative contests, where GOP craves five seats