By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
It’s EARLY, I know, but as Chris Christie continues to build towards something (what? you can’t see, but I’m shrugging), I thought it might be worth talking to you about some of the names that came up most frequently over drinks and gossip in Atlantic City last week.
He’s the clear front runner for the gubernatorial nomination, Save Jerseyans, for whatever that distinction is worth with (possibly) two full years left to go before campaigning begins in earnest. Strengths? The Assembly GOP leader is a very likable guy with a Jersey-tude of his own but sans the mean. Fundraising ability? Check. The ability to throw down when necessary? Yes. He enjoys a strong base of support among establishment Republicans from the county committee level-on-up from his past and ongoing ARV work and, as demonstrated at least week’s 1,000 attendee ARV-sponsored A.C. event, he’s the favorite of the fractured albeit still formidable Christie network. Downside: like most New Jersey Republican prospects, he’s starting with a dearth of statewide name recognition and self-funding ability. Asm. Bramnick is also a social moderate, specifically on the abortion issue (although he made us proud by standing against legalizing euthanasia); even in New Jersey, that’s a complicating factor in a GOP primary though not necessarily a stumbling block. My take: it’s hard to imagine the decision-making party chairmen (Gilmore, Layton, etc.) preferring anyone else listed below, or a less-known quantity for that matter, over Jon Bramnick unless he (or she) comes with a big checkbook.
NJ GOP Establishment Option #2A: The insider who’s not? I maintain that New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor remains an underestimated/undervalued political talent, Save Jerseyans. She’s put in a ton of time on the N.J. Turnpike and G.S. Parkway travel circuit, visiting regional farm fairs, local small businesses, sleepy chamber events, and county GOP fundraisers, but she’s also had to live in the shade where the media is concerned as Governor Christie casts a long shadow and the Front Office’s media strategy hasn’t included her (at all). There’s also the small matter of ongoing tensions between the Christie and Guadagno camps, perhaps in part because of her exclusion from a central role in the Administration’s media efforts. HOWEVER, if the Governor’s stock continues to fall among rank and file NJ GOP’ers, the state’s first-ever LG and only female Republican prospect with any name recognition (though still not much) could certainly emerge as a top-tier contender.
Tom Kean Jr.
NJ GOP Establishment Option #2B: The Bush Scenario? A popular, extremely-affable legislator with a prominent name whom I’m proud to call a friend, Tom Kean Jr. remains a force to be reckoned with in New Jersey Republican politics as clearly demonstrated by his easily surviving a post-Election 2013 coup attempt that had the tacit approval of the Christie Administration. For now, there’s no indication that he’s seriously interested in 2017 (the better bet: a 2018 rematch with Menendez in a non-presidential year? He came within single digits of knocking him out in 2016, the closest of any GOP nationwide Senate challenger that year.). Still, if he wants in, TK2 could make a serious go of it. An interesting hypothetical: if Kean ultimately backs Jeb Bush over Chris Christie (a reasonable assumption given cooled relations with Christie and his attendance at a recent Bush dinner in NYC), and Jeb goes on to win the presidency in 2016, that may change the ground-level dynamics for our state’s next gubernatorial contest such as to make it more attractive for Kean. Food for thought…
The Mainstream Conservative Alternative: One of New Jersey’s few consistently-reliable conservative legislators, our friend Assemblyman Jay Webber’s insider stock fell after being forced out of the NJ GOP chairmanship in 2011 following a series of personality/strategy conflicts with certain Christie World folks (are you noticing a pattern here?). He nevertheless remains solidly popular with active base Republicans around the state and could be a strong potential successor for a House seat if Rep. Frelinghuysen ever retires. He also may have the “Walker Factor” working in his favor (which I’m defining as “establishment enough to not scare the establishment but conservative enough that his credentials are unimpeachable.”). Ivy League-educated and solidly pro-life, Asm. Webber is also building a network outside of the Garden State; he was recently appointed to the Board of Governors for the Reagan Ranch, and he’s set to host his own 1,000 attendee event in Morris County next month headlined by none other than former Vice President Dick Cheney. Were he to enter the gubernatorial race, Webber might be an effective movement conservative alternative candidate; would his out-of-state connections close the fundraising gap with establishment primary competitors?
Dark Horse #1: More libertarian than conservative, the West Point trained, Ron Paul-loving and serially-serious Sen. Doherty could emerge as an interesting anti-establishment candidate IF the wheels really started popping off of the Christie bus and/or, for some reason, the three establishment candidates listed at the top of list decided to pass. He’s often been in the mix on major policy debates despite the fact that Democrats keep Republicans on the periphery; the “fair school funding” debate is a notable example. He’s also been a frequent and increasingly vocal critic of the Administration, recently going as far as to dismiss Chris Christie as a “failed” governor after the 2015 State of the State address. Again, depending on how the macro political situation develops, that level of candor could prove a decisive strength or a fatal weakness during a statewide run. TBD.
Dark Horse #2: Asm. Ciaterelli of Somerset County is a dark horse candidate who could quickly emerge as a top tier option for some sort of statewide campaign, possibly even governor. Why? He’s got it all: an Italian last name in a very-Italian state, classic good looks, a strong fiscally conservative voting record (the only legislator with a 100% rating from the ACU and AFP-NJ running in a swing district), AND considerable personal wealth (not Corzine money, but definitely some significant capital to spare from his private sector exploits at the head of two companies, or so I’m told by people who know him). Reportedly he briefly weighed running against Cory Booker in 2013/2014. What else to consider? Well, he also has the Christie-esque habit of getting a bit personal with critics (see his exchange with Jay Webber above over the “right to die” debate). Any of us with Italian blood can relate regardless of whether we agree with him on the substance which, in the case of the Webber spat, I did not. Starting to make the rounds, Asm. Ciaterelli is headlining the Atlantic County GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner later this month. Keep him on your watch list…
Dark Horse #3: Check out my notes from a one-on-one December breakfast with Monmouth’s Sheriff and GOP chairman, Save Jerseyans, if you haven’t already. What else can I add: you’ll note that this list is populated exclusively by legislators except for Guadagno and Golden, both from politically significant and geographically important Monmouth County. He has the “executive experience” card, law enforcement card AND not-of-Trenton card, all in his back pocket. Compelling, right?
Dark Horse #4A: Everyone in the #4 section, btw, is here because they’re worth watching but are nevertheless highly-unlikely to run unless everyone further up on the list (save for maybe Webber and Doherty?) declines to run. For starters, Asm. O’Scanlon would be a Christie-esque pick insofar as his brand is authenticity. Articulate, scrappy but never pugnacious, he led the charge to discontinue the red light camera program in New Jersey. I’ve long believed that he’s got a major role to play in the NJ GOP of tomorrow as evidenced by his growing insider fan base and AFP-NJ 100% rating. For now? As Assembly Republican Budget Officer, he’s going to need to help craft the Republican Party’s 2015 position on a strong gas tax hike push that has the support of Governor Christie’s NJ DOT commissioner. Click here to read his initial take on the situation.
Dark Horse #4B: My buddy Art Gallagher, who covers Monmouth County like a blanket, penned a great post on Caroline back in June 2013 when Chris Christie was considering options to replace Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate. Read it. She may be unlikely to run in 2017, but you can bet she’ll be at the top of the LG candidate short list. What’s more, I also find her to be one of the more thoroughly-likable people in Trenton.
Dark Horse #4C: With no disrespect intended, Asm. Schepisi’s profile is very similar to Caroline’s and Declan’s. Her major distinguishing characteristic? Geography, something that’s never insignificant in the Governor/LG calculus. After the collapse of the Donovan-era GOP in Bergen and the imminent retirement of Asm. McHose, she’s North Jersey’s most prominent female Republican legislator in statewide circles. Her visibility on the Bridgegate SCI committee didn’t hurt.
Dark Horse #4D: Just as Schepisi is a standout on the basis of her location alone (before even analyzing any other attributes), the same can be said of Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2), the only South Jerseyans gracing this list (indicative of the strong grip that the Norcross Machine continues to exert even during the Christie years or, you might say, because of the Christie years). Brown has a potentially tough reelect battle ahead on his plate in 2015 and, assuming he comes out okay, plenty of folks are eyeing him as a successor to Frank LoBiondo or a challenger to Jim Whelan. Still, as you can see from my interviews with him, he’s one of the states more charismatic and telegenic conservatives with an admirable military record to boot.
Dark Horse #4E: Much like her district mate Jack Ciaterelli, Asm. Simon continues to win elections running as a conservative in a not-so-conservative district. No small feat! And she speaks with great clarity. Talent from battleground districts can’t be underrated because they know how to work in the context of campaign (unlike some of their safe red district colleagues). Don’t be shocked if she ends up as, for example, Asm. Bramnick’s running mate in 2017.
Dark Horse #4F: Asm. Rodriquez-Gregg isn’t higher on this list owing only to the newness factor (which isn’t always an obstacle). I don’t want to minimize the many fine substantive qualities of this intelligent, thoughtful legislator by harping on the obvious, but the fact that she also happens to be an exceptionally telegenic Latina Republican (one of the few in an increasingly-diverse New Jersey) makes her almost a sure bet for statewide consideration in the years ahead.