Governor Chris Christie’s post-election attempt to replace Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr with Senator Kevin O’Toole was not a matter of Christie doing Senate President Steve Sweeney’s bidding, as has been widely perceived, but the culmination of a months long battle over differing strategies over how to wage the legislative campaign.
That Christie was unable to persuade Senate Republicans to dump Kean as their leader in favor of O’Toole was viewed by the media and political observers as a shocking act of defiance of the governor by the caucus viewed as obedient followers. But insiders say the united Republican front portrayed to the public masked an ongoing dispute between Kean’s and Christie’s political teams that resulted in Christie’s landslide reelection yielding no pick up of seats in the Senate.
Early on in the campaign, the Christie campaign concluded winning a majority in the State Senate, picking up 5 seats, was unlikely given the legislative map and the resources that South Jersey Democrats and their Independent Expenditure supporters were known to be deploying to defend their turf. Team Christie devised a strategy of winning a “functional majority,” by winning three Senate seats…District 14 (Middlesex and Mercer Counties) where former Senator Peter Inverso came out of retirement in an attempt to unseat Democrat Linda Greenstein, District 18 (Middlesex County), gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s district where East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl switched parties to run as a Republican against Assemblyman Peter Barnes, and District 38 (Bergen County) where businessman/educator Fernando Alonso was out to defeat Democratic Senator Bob Gordon…and courting policy friendly Democrats…Senators Brian Stack and Sandra Cunningham of Hudson County…to deliver the 20th and 21st votes for a majority when needed during Christie’s second term.
Kean’s team would not be satisfied with a “functional majority” and, over the objections of the Christie team, went for broke by targeting what they considered the five most vulnerable senate seats….the three seats Christie’s team targeted above, plus Sweeney’s 3rd District seat (Gloucester and Salem Counties) and Senator Jim Whelan’s 4th District seat (Atlantic County). While they were in South Jersey, Kean’s team also dedicated resources to Senator Jeff Van Drew’s 1st District seat (Cape May County).
In hindsight, Christie’s team was right, and the Democrats retained all of their seats. At his press conference yesterday, Christie noted that the three seats his team targeted, and where he spent time and money on behalf of the Republican senate candidates, that the GOP lost by only 4500 votes cumulatively. (The actual number was 4688). In South Jersey, Sweeney won by almost 10% with a 4278 vote margin. Whelan beat popular Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, also by 10% and over 4000 votes, while Van Drew won with almost 60% of the vote.