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Runyan Retirement Sparks Rare Open N.J. Seat

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.

Democrats are applying the same logic to Runyan’s 3rd District and, to a lesser extent, to six-term Rep. Scott Garrett’s 5th District. President Barack Obama carried both the LoBiondo and Runyan districts in 2008 and 2012, and he lost Garrett’s district with just 48 percent.

Last month, former federal prosecutor Bill Hughes Jr., a Democrat, announced his campaign for the Atlantic City-based 2nd District. He is the son of William J. Hughes, who once held that seat.

Democrats also say state Sen. Jeff Van Drew could run for the seat, along with Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and state Sen. Jim Whelan. But if Democrats are unable to unseat LoBiondo in a race, state operatives are confident they can pick up the seat whenever he retires.

Thanks to the Runyan retirement, New Jersey has a truly competitive race on its hands.

Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, a Democrat, is running for the seat, and the field is quickly clearing for her. She might also get backing from EMILY’s List.

Republicans say the following contenders are in a position to run for Runyan’s seat: former Mets and Yankees pitcher Al Leiter, Evesham Township Mayor Randy Brown, Burlington County Freeholder Director Joseph Donnelly, state Sen. Dawn Addiego and state Sen. Christopher J. Connors.

Out of the trio of somewhat competitive House districts, Democrats will have the toughest task in Garrett’s Bergen County-based 5th District.

“That’s a seat that they [the DCCC] could work on ... if they get a solid legislator with a decent name and a decent base of support,” a New Jersey Democratic operative said. Still, the numbers are favorable to Republicans.

Democratic attorney Roy Cho filed his statement of candidacy in mid-April, but there is little evidence of institutional support coming his way. Democrats say state Sen. Bob Gordon and Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Silna Zur are also impressive up-and-comers in the district.

As for Republican pickups, one long-shot opportunity could be Pallone’s 6th District — only if he retires. But Pallone is not expected to leave anytime soon, along with the rest of the delegation.

Then again, this is New Jersey, and anything can happen.

Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

An earlier version of this article misstated Jack M. Ciattarelli's title. He is a state assemblyman.

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