Is New Jersey the next Delaware?

The announcement last week that Tea Party favorite Anna Little is “leaning” toward a run for U.S. Senate had some Republicans fretting that New Jersey could be the next Delaware, throwing away a chance to win a Senate seat with a candidate not suited for a general election.

Delaware Republicans, you’ll remember, nominated former witch Christine O’Donnell to represent the party against Democrat Chris Coons.

O’Donnell won the chance to take on Coons in a primary, where she faced moderate Republican and former Gov. Mike Castle.  Despite several gaffes and strange stories that emerged from the O’Donnell campaign, she defeated Castle with Tea Party support only to get shellacked by Coons in the general election.

Pre-primary polls had showed Castle a heavy favorite over Coons and the GOP thought they had a shot at taking the seat and with it, the entire Senate.  But it was not to be.

Some in the GOP fear that Little may re-create that Delaware debacle, losing what Republicans say is a winnable seat in the process.

Incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez has shown some weakness in recent polls with just average name recognition and job approval numbers.  An October Quinnipiac poll put his job approval rating at 42 percent, though that number was up from an earlier poll that put him at 39 percent.  A September Fairleigh Dickinson/PublicMind poll put his name recognition at just 53 percent.  Voters are split nearly down the middle (40-38) over whether Menendez deserves another term but he beats an unnamed Republican 43 to 39.

Those numbers have given Republicans a glimmer of hope though they’ll mean nothing if the party cannot field a challenger with strong statewide appeal. 

Little ran a failed bid for Congress last year in the 6th District, defeating Republican Diane Gooch in a primary. Her cadre of volunteers, dubbed Anna’s Army, created buzz during the campaign, but little else. Little raised about $485,000 in the campaign and lost by double digits to incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone.  

What’s more, Little’s penchant to want to jump into any statewide contest – she told PolitickerNJ earlier this year that she planned to take on Pallone in a rematch – turns off some Republicans, who say she does little but muddy the waters. In the wake of the election, some pundits drew comparisons between Little and O’Donnell, believing that a more moderate Republican may have stood a chance against Pallone, much as Castle was favored to beat Coons. Tea Party faithful, the storyline went, favored partisan purity over pragmatism and cost the GOP the seat.

While no contenders – including Little – have declared their candidacy, at least two state lawmakers are said to be considering their own bids.  Sen. Joe Kyrillos of Monmouth County and Sen. Mike Doherty of Warren County are both said to be in the hunt.

Doherty also is seen by many Republicans as far too conservative to run a credible statewide campaign, but with experience as a freeholder, assemblyman and senator, not to mention a degree from West Point and stints in the Army and reserves, he has the resume to back up his campaign.

A Little candidacy would likely boost Kyrillos at the polls. While some say the Tea Party has grown tired of Little and her ability to fundraise is in doubt, she would likely siphon votes from Doherty, who will also count on support from the Tea Party and more conservative Republicans.

A battle over the conservative wing of the party would leave Kyrillos to court moderate Republicans.

One problem scenario for Republicans would arise if Doherty backs away from a run as one source has suggested he might, preferring instead to focus on his school funding bill.  Doherty’s absence would leave Kyrillos and Little, both of Monmouth County, to fight it out.  Little actually won Monmouth County in her Congressional bid, though she lost her hometown of Highlands Borough, where she once served as mayor.

But no matter who emerges as the GOP nominee, New Jersey in 2012 is vastly different than Delaware in 2010.  First, Menendez is an incumbent, with what will likley be a $15 to $20 million war chest  at his disposal.  Granted his name recognition and job approval numbers aren’t stellar but he’ll be running in a blue state alongside a Democratic president.

If the economy stays poor, both the president and Menendez could face some backlash. If the economy picks up, look for both to coast in New Jersey.

On top of his war chest, which continues to grow, Menendez has been in full campaign mode for the better part of the last year, while potential challengers are still on the sidelines.

One name that has so far surfaced only in rumors is Jets owner Woody Johnson.  Johnson, who owns a home in Somerset County, would come in with an instant war chest and some name recognition. 

Johnson is mulling a bid, sources say, though at least one source said his entrance into the race is a long shot. Is New Jersey the next Delaware?