Talk to establishment Republicans and most of them – when prodded on gubernatorial 2017 politics – acknowledge the frontrunner status right now of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.
But there are three names that continue to circulate along with the idea that the field could shape into a 2006 repeat, with multiple Republican hopefuls running into the vacuum created by Gov. Chris Christie’s departure.
Of the three recurring names, two stand on obvious opposite sides of the party and, in the words of one party insider, “will each take one statewide shot,” the question is when – and which office.
Neither appears determined to limit himself to either governor or senator.
They are state Sen. Mike Doherty (R-23) and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) (pictured), a movement conservative from western New Jersey and moderate Republican from Union County respectively.
The third is state Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21), Bramnick’s district-mate.
Of the three, only Kean has run statewide before, his unsuccessful 2006 challenge of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
Republican sources are divided. Some say “Tom has one more statewide run in him.” Others say no, his pathway out of the state senate takes him elsewhere – to Congress.
An interesting dynamic in what could turn into a political collision among them – or at least a conversation – is that the three Republicans all reside either in – or, as is the case with Doherty, in the immediate vicinity, of the 7th District.
In the event that U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) ever becomes a judge – and those rumors have dogged him for a while even as his staff laughs them off – one of the possible Republican gubernatorial candidate – Kean, Doherty or Bramnick – could try to succeed Lance.
Lance’s allies say he’s in, and in to stay, even as party sources look at 2016 and wonder whether that’s a year that will embolden movement conservative David Larsen, who’s already run three times against Lance, including earlier this year when he came within nine points of dislodging the incumbent.
Lance’s allies say the congressman wasn’t engaged this year, and when he engages he’ll nullify Larsen. But that’s another story.
When and if Lance leaves, a Republican source close to the situation says Kean – son of former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr., – would be in the strongest position to make a move and follow the congressman (who himself served as GOP leader in the state senate) to Washington, D.C.
That leaves Bramnick and Doherty – once again – to consider the statewide landscape.
The two have flirted with the possibility for at least half a decade, circling each other as recently as earlier this year.
Both looked hard at running against U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
Party sources say it’s conceivable that had Bridgegate not occurred, one of them – or both – would have run for U.S. Senate. The toxic up-gurgle of the George Washington Bridge scandal, however, threw the entire Christie-branded party into turmoil. Even before that, Christie’s governing style, which relies heavily on alliances with Democrats like Booker, made Republicans cautious about running against him.
In the lead-up to his decision, Doherty spoke to powerful Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore about a possible run. Knowing he’d field a serious challenge to Booker similar to the one Steve Lonegan ran a year ago, at least one Republican chairman begged Doherty to get in the race.
Like Bramnick, he ultimately decided against it.
But these two men in particular, of those who might emerge as a challenger to Guadagno, continue to cause others to speculate on their designs and respect their position in the party.
Again, each has one shot, the source said.
If Guadagno runs, it’s conceivable that Bramnick wouldn’t run.
If she runs, it increases the likelihood of the assembly minority leader running against Menendez in 2018.
Two moderates in the race increase the chances of Doherty, who has long occupied the rightward reaches of his party.
Barring entry into the contest of a strong conservative like former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan or Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26), Doherty has more autonomy than Bramnick if Guadagno stays in the race.
If Webber runs, Doherty would save his shot against Menendez and 2018.