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Political pandemonium struck the Garden State this week. And it had nothing to do with Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s blowout victory or even Election Day.
Two-term Republican Rep. Jon Runyan announced his retirement Wednesday, a rare event in New Jersey, where pols almost never leave office willingly — or alive.
More often, open-seat races are a result of a congressional death or scandal. What’s more, party machines essentially pick the nominees in the Garden State. Accordingly, patience suits any aspiring senator or representative in the state.
“Congressional seats are pretty precious and do not open up very frequently, which is why this opening in the Runyan seat has a lot of people talking,” said Brad Lawrence, a New Jersey-based Democratic media consultant. “They are pretty much lifetime appointments.”
This week, the state’s political operatives debated the effects of Christie’s victory down the ballot. Could his win turn any of the state — including 12 House districts — into a battleground?
Democrats, who largely didn’t compete in the gubernatorial race, did not watch Christie’s win margin. Instead, they zoomed in on whether his coattails could bring Republicans into the state Legislature. But GOP gains were minimal.
To that point, any Republican who runs for Senate in New Jersey begins as an underdog. The Garden State can often look tempting to Republicans, but the state’s expensive media markets helps protect Democratic Senate candidates. For national Republicans, a New Jersey Senate race is as a risky money pit.
But if the GOP ever does play for the seat, Republicans named state Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., state Sen. Joe Kyrillos Jr. and state Assemblyman Jay Webber as top GOP recruits.
For years, Democrats’ speculation about the Senate centered on Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s retirement. He died earlier this year. Since then, some of the party’s top contenders — Reps. Robert E. Andrews, Rush D. Holt and Frank Pallone Jr. — tried and failed in Senate bids. Last year, Rep. Steven R. Rothman lost his chance for re-election in a member-vs.-member primary.
Meanwhile, the remaining New Jersey Democrats in the delegation acquired seniority on crucial House committees. The bursting ambition among House Democrats from New Jersey has mitigated, for now. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, are firmly entrenched in their seats.
In the near future, Democrats say the only conceivable opening for Senate would occur if Booker sought and won higher office. And so the wait could be a long one for aspiring senators.
Still, some operatives point to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop as a fresh face to enter the mix. They say he could also run for Democratic Rep. Albio Sires’ 8th District someday.
In the House, any turnover would probably be a result of an incumbent losing re-election. And in this state, that’s almost as unique as a retirement.
“If Democrats want to win back the House, they’re going to have to win districts like (Frank A.) LoBiondo’s,” said a New Jersey Democratic operative of the 2nd District.