The 2006 Senate race in New Jersey started early today, as State Senator Tom Kean Jr. told state Republicans he is opening a federal campaign account and will start to raise money for a Senate race. Readers of this blog will note that just two weeks ago I declared Tom Kean Jr. a potential savior of the state GOP.
Kean’s announcement is early, considering that there is still the 2005 gubernatorial race going on, but it seems like a smart move. It will probably keep other big names, like Diane Allen or U.S. Attorney Chris Christie out of the race, shoring up party leadership support (and money) for Kean. Kean’s leap into the big time has certainly been talked about for a while, and as he leads the Senate GOP in the battle against pay-for-play and establishes his fiscal conservative credentials (he was recently the only State Senator to vote against raising the sales tax), the time seems right.
But can he win? That’s the $64,000 question of course. His chances depend a little on what happens in this year’s governor’s race. If current Democratic Senator Jon Corzine wins the governorship, he gets to appoint his successor in the Senate. Kean would face either a one-year caretaker or a Democratic candidate who has emerged from a brutal primary season. His odds would be pretty good in that situation. On the other hand, if Republican frontrunners Bret Schundler and Doug Forrester, or any of the five lesser candidates currently in the race, win this year’s gubernatorial contest, Kean would have to go up against a seriously wounded but still filthy-stinking-rich Corzine next year (boy, it would be nice to see Corzine lose two races in a row….).
Can Kean be stopped before the general election? I suppose the loser of this June’s GOP gubernatorial primary could jump right into the Senate race, but the quick turnaround may be too much (for both staff and potential donators). I don’t imagine that, should the GOP lose the general gubernatorial election, the losing candidate would immediately run for Senate. Either Forrester or Schundler would already be 0-for-2 in statewide races and the party would definitely want a fresh face, which Kean provides. There is also the chance that Kean would be upset in the primaries by a more conservative challenger, such as Murray Sabrin, whose 1997 run for governor as a Libertarian nearly topped Christie Whitman (he took 5 percent of the vote in a race that Whitman won 47–46 percent). But this assumes that Kean, like his father, is a fiscal conservative with moderate leanings on social issues. His public record so far is not long enough to get a complete impression of where he stands on the issues that energize the GOP base. Right now, his good standing among the state GOP faithful is maintained mostly by his father’s good name (how fortuitious that Kean Sr. was in the public eye recently with his work on the 9/11 Commission). The next year-and-a-half will truely tell if Kean Jr. is meant to become a Jersey George W.