Democrats’ effort to oust Christie puts NJ Senate race on ice

Several New Jersey Democrats who are considering running for the Senate are delaying their decision to avoid distracting attention from their party’s effort to knock off Gov. Chris Christie (R) in this year’s gubernatorial election.

But while the looming battle against Christie has effectively frozen the Senate campaign, the candidates are laying the groundwork to challenge the presumed 2014 Democratic front-runner, Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

“Everybody will keep their powder dry for 2013, but I don’t think it’s going quiet. I just don’t think it’s going public,” said New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski.

Booker announced in December that he was exploring a Senate campaign, a move that angered many New Jersey Democrats because it came before Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) had publicly said whether he would retire.

The Newark mayor’s decision also spiked the hopes among many Democrats that he would challenge Christie, who is riding high in public approval ratings.

Now, Democrats are scrambling to rally around a relatively unknown gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Barbara Buono, who will need the help of more-established Democrats in New Jersey to raise funds and to improve her name recognition.

Among the potential Senate candidates who are biding their time on whether to run are Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. and Rush Holt, who have both indicated an interest in Lautenberg’s seat, and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and state Sen. Steve Sweeney.

“I just think it’s important for the party in general, not for me per se — it’s just important for the party in general that we elect a Democratic governor and we keep both the Senate and the General Assembly in Democratic hands,” Pallone told The Hill.

Pallone declined to discuss his potential Senate bid, or any preparations he may be undertaking for 2014.

But Pallone’s chief of staff, Jeff Carroll, noted that campaigning for Buono “gives us the opportunity to run around the state and speak” with different constituencies.

That will allow the lawmaker to raise his profile in time for 2014, while still aiding the Democrats in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

The potential candidates’ aversion to getting too deep into their preparations for 2014 publicly stems in part from the reaction to Booker’s announcement about his own Senate ambitions.

Prominent Democratic leaders in New Jersey saw the timing as disrespectful to Lautenberg and a distraction from the gubernatorial race.

“I thought Cory could’ve handled it better,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told The Hill.

“But Cory’s a bright guy. You know, he’s a young guy, he’s going through the experience of government,” he added.

Pascrell said that both Pallone and Booker had reached out to him to express their interest in the Senate race, but that he hadn’t made a decision on a potential endorsement.

Unlike many other states, New Jersey has gubernatorial and state legislative races on off-years.

Potential Senate candidates in other 2014 states are already launching campaigns — or preparing to do so in the coming months. But Democrats in New Jersey point out that they’re used to juggling preparations for multiple races at once.

“What will happen this year is what always happens in New Jersey in the year preceding the run: the quiet preparation, the behind-the-scenes work, the vetting of potential campaign staff,” Wisniewski said.

Booker has made the most substantial outward steps so far by establishing a campaign committee.

Privately, Democrats admit they’d rather not discuss the Senate race to avoid stirring up the press that could be generated by a fierce primary fight and distracting from the race at hand — Buono v. Christie.

The potential Democratic candidates in New Jersey are concerned, in particular, about angering county party heads, whose endorsements are largely won with behind-the-scenes deal making.

That deal making, sources say, is not yet occurring overtly — candidates are focusing their attention more on showing how they can help down-ballot candidates in 2014 by helping Buono in 2013.

An aide to a potential Democratic contender confirmed that the gubernatorial race is seen by some New Jersey power brokers as a dry run of sorts for the Senate race in 2014.

“For the county chairs, it actually helps (Senate candidates) this way. They’re coming to anyone who wants to run for U.S. Senate right now and saying: ‘Hey, how you help us this year is a big part of how you can help us next year,’ ” the aide said.

The aide added that their candidate saw the gubernatorial race as an advantage for 2014 preparation, as it allows the candidate to expand their name recognition throughout the state.

But that candidate did agree not to raise funds in New Jersey, choosing instead to fundraise nationally and leave the pool of in-state donors to Buono.

The deal making is, at some level, taking place, however.

Oliver, the state Assembly Speaker who has expressed interest in the race, said that she is holding exploratory meetings with party leaders in the state and reaching out to potential supporters.

But Oliver does not plan on announcing any staff hires or endorsements until at least after the gubernatorial primary, in June.

She said her reticence to publicly share her plans reflects, similar to the other potential candidates, a focus on the gubernatorial race.

“You can begin to do your groundwork, but if you are a committed Democrat, and you are committed to our party, it is time to take a back seat,” she told The Hill.