In NJ Senate Race, GOP Field Sparse as Democrats Crowd In

All the candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey have gotten their signature petitions in, and it's a crowded field. On the Democratic side, there's a celebrity mayor, two long-serving Congressmen, and the Speaker of the state assembly. On the Republican side, the best known-candidate is a former mayor who has lost two statewide races, but he's got Tea Party credentials in his right pocket.

The New Jersey GOP has one of the country's brightest stars in Chris Christie, but the open Senate seat hasn't attracted big-name Republicans.

The party's best-known candidate is conservative activist Steve Lonegan. Yet 62 percent of voters recently told Quinnipiac that they hadn't heard enough about him to have an opinion. There's also Alieta Eck, a leader of a conservative physicians group.

Until last week, Lonegan worked for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The conservative group holds taxpayer activism training, rates legislators on a scale of "taxpayer hero" to "taxpayer zero" and ran radio ads in segments called "Taxpayer Minute"where Lonegan advocated for conservative legislative policy.

Before becoming a conservative activist full-time, Lonegan was the mayor of Bogota, a town of about 8,000 people in Bergen County. He's run for governor twice, most recently in 2009, when Chris Christie beat him in the Republican primary by 13 points.

Four years later, Republican Governor Christie enjoys a 69 percent approval rating in this blue state. So why aren't more New Jersey Republicans clamoring for statewide office?

It goes back to Christie and his decision to schedule the special election in October. That means he's not sharing a ballot with the Senate candidates. By extension, Republican candidates aren't sharing any of the turnout energy around his reelection.

The election calendar also shrunk the pool of potential Republican candidates when Christie opted to have the election this year, when state lawmakers are running for reelection.

"In structuring the election the way that he did, the governor actually handed the Democrats the advantage,” said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison. “Many of the qualified Republicans are state legislators, so if they were to run, they would have to essentially give up their state legislature seats, all of which are pretty safe and comfortable, in order to pursue this long shot: a Republican being elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey.”

That explains why state Senator Tom Kean Jr., who has run for U.S. Senate before, said he's focusing this fall on winning Republican control of the state senate. Another Republican state senator, Joe Kyrillos, challenged Senator Robert Menendez last year, but opted against another U.S. Senate bid.

And since Christie is actively campaigning for his reelection in November, he told reporters on Monday it's up to the Senate candidates to excite voters to turn out in October. 

“Turnout is up to the candidates. If candidates put out a vision that excites the electorate, the electorate will come out to support that candidate. If they don't, they won't,” Christie said. “And I don't care if that election is in June, August, October or November."

In other words, New Jersey Republicans are on their own to generate momentum for this U.S. Senate race.