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Republicans Raise Prospect of Johnson Senate Bid in N.J.

Republicans Raise Prospect of Johnson Senate Bid in N.J.

By Erin McPike - January 23, 2011

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson has been preoccupied with the NFL for the last several months while his team has been making a strong run at the Super Bowl, but he already may be thinking about another competition.

Several politically involved Republican sources say the New Jersey business magnate is toying with the idea of a Senate run and getting some encouragement. Every source contacted for this story emphasized that it is still unlikely Johnson actually will enter a race to face off against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in 2012, but there's been enough buzz that a few Republican lawmakers have begun to chatter about the possibility with staff and lobbyists, who suggest that a Johnson candidacy could reorder the political landscape in New Jersey next year. CNN listed him as early as November as a potential candidate.

Mike DuHaime, a Garden State native and veteran Republican operative who guided New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to victory in 2009, was effusive in his praise for Johnson.

"He's very well thought of in New Jersey, as is his family, for everything from the Jets to his charitable work," DuHaime said. "If he were to decide to run, he'd be a very serious candidate."

Johnson is politically active within the GOP and was a major donor to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. He recently has raised cash for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Free and Strong America PAC and was a critical presence at a May, 2010, fundraiser for Romney's organization at the New York City Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Johnson has raised millions for Republicans - especially within the last few years - and has engendered support from the upper echelon of politically motivated and wealthy Republicans in the Northeast. The New Jersey Republican Party did not return several inquiries about whether they have heard from him about the coming political cycle.

Already potentially considering the U.S. Senate race is New Jersey Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., who lost to Menendez in 2006. Kean, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and state Sen. Michael Doherty have been tested against Menendez in independent polling matchups that size up the coming race.

But GOP sources believe that if Johnson were to enter the race, his candidacy could clear the field. In addition to high name recognition and good will throughout the Garden State, they point out that the billionaire Johnson would be capable of financing his own campaign, and that would make him a threat not just to the Republican field, but to the Democratic incumbent in the blue state home to the nationally popular Republican governor, Chris Christie.

In addition to his work with the Jets and with research and charitable funding for diabetes, the 63-year-old Johnson is the chief executive of the private equity firm, Johnson Company, Inc. and an heir to Johnson & Johnson. He also is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

And in a sign that Johnson could be gearing up to be more serious than political operatives claim, the businessman joined Romney on an educational trip earlier this month to the Middle East, according to a blog post on Politico's Web site.

Menendez's poll numbers suggest that the first-term senator who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last cycle could be in for a competitive re-election race next year.

A poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind surveyed 802 registered voters, Jan. 3 to Jan. 8, and found Menendez garnering less than 50 percent against several potential challengers. Johnson was not tested, but Menendez bested his 2006 opponent, Kean, in the survey, 44 percent to 34 percent. The poll's margin of error was 3.5 percent.

 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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