It was another nasty day in one of the worst winters in recent memory. A fresh layer of snow had begun to coat the remnants of a Christmas blizzard, but not nearly enough to keep several leading Hudson County Democrats from showing up at the Metropolitan Family Health Network in Jersey City, where a pediatric center was to be named for Senator Robert Menendez.
The junior United States senator from New Jersey was back on his chilly home turf. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he had spent much of the past year in Washington and on the road. It had been a punishing campaign, with President Obama and the Democrats taking their lumps. And while Menendez is credited with helping to save majority leader Harry Reid’s job and keeping the Senate under Democratic control, at home he found a party splintered and weakened by Chris Christie, the boisterous and emboldened Republican governor.
In Newark’s North Ward, one of the state’s Democratic power brokers, Steve Adubato Sr., had fully embraced the Republican governor. His increasingly influential acolyte, Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo, was quoted as saying the governor “is doing a great job.” Even the mayor of Union City, Democrat Brian Stack—who holds the same office once occupied by Menendez—called Christie “the greatest governor the state has ever had.”
The political tide in New Jersey seems to have turned against Menendez and his fellow liberal Democrats. Still, it remains to be seen whether Christie, an emerging supernova on the national stage, has the horsepower to drive the Democrats from office at home. In Christie’s perfect world, he would run the table—win the budget battle with the Legislature, gain control of it in the fall with a helpful nudge from redistricting, and engineer an upset of Menendez, who will be up for reelection in 2012.
Of course, a lot can happen over the next year and a half. For one thing, Christie could end up on the Republicans’ national ticket in 2012—despite his supposed disinterest. Second, the Jersey Republicans will be closely monitoring the health of 87-year-old Frank Lautenberg, who was treated for stomach cancer last year. The Senate’s oldest member faces reelection in 2014, and his seat might look like easier pickings for GOP Senate hopefuls.
Still, unseating Menendez could be an irresistible political challenge for Christie. Republicans in New Jersey have not sent one of their own to the Senate since Clifford Case was reelected to his final term in 1972. Nicholas Brady served for 10 months in 1982, but he was appointed by Governor Tom Kean after Harrison Williams, a Democrat, resigned in disgrace.
If Menendez has a vulnerable spot, it might be his lack of recognition across the state. According to a poll released in February by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 53 percent of registered Democrats in New Jersey say they do not know or have any opinion of the senator.
To be sure, Menendez holds a solid lead in what is still a Democratic-leaning state, despite the victory by Christie in 2009 and the loss of a House seat last November. A separate FDU poll showed Menendez, a product of the political cauldron of Hudson County, substantially ahead of any potential Republican challenger.
“I should believe that all things are possible,” says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the Cook Political Report, “but I don’t see a Republican winning that election.”
Or, as Alan Marcus, a veteran Republican operative in the state, puts it, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
When asked about viable GOP candidates, Tom Wilson, the former state Republican chairman, quipped: “Tom Kean Sr.,” referring to the popular former governor.
The name Tom Kean does appear on a list of almost a dozen possible challengers, but it ends with Jr. and he lost to Menendez by 8 percentage points in 2006. Kean Jr., now minority leader in the state Senate, fared better than all other Republicans in a January FDU poll, finishing 10 percentage points behind Menendez, 44 percent to 34 percent.
Trailing Kean is a string of other potential candidates, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno; state Senator Joe Kyrillos Jr., a close confidante of the governor; state Senator Jennifer Beck; and former state Senator Bill Baroni, whom Christie lifted from the scrum in Trenton and appointed deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
And there are those wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns, like John Crowley, a biotech executive whom national Republicans tried in vain to have challenge Lautenberg in 2008. The bubble machine even has Jets owner Woody Johnson, a major Republican Party donor, considering a run.
Another possibility, says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers, is a run by a conservative congressman like Scott Garrett of Sussex County. New Jersey has to shed one of 13 congressional seats, most likely from the northern part of the state, through redistricting as a result of the 2010 Census. If a current congressman like Garrett is squeezed out, he could opt for a Senate run.
“The scalp of Menendez would be highly prized by Republicans,” says Baker, “but there doesn’t seem to be anybody of comparable ability or experience.”
What adds to the GOP’s problem, Wilson says, is that “presidential election years haven’t been good to Republicans for a while.” The 2012 presidential campaign presumably will hinge on the direction of the economy and the current international unrest. Still, President Obama’s increased approval rating—54 percent in a recent FDU poll—is a reassuring sign for Menendez.
The difficulties facing Menendez include a likely challenge from Tea Party activists in the aftermath of their futile campaign to recall him because of his liberal ideology. On the other hand, if the Tea Party puts up its own candidate, that could divide Republicans and help Menendez.
RoseAnn Salanitri, a member of New Jersey Tea Party United who headed the recall effort, says the desire to unseat Menendez, whose record she calls abysmal, is unabated. She says Tea Party activists plan to gather in East Windsor in mid-April “to begin the process of recruiting.”
Menendez can counter with connections and cash. He has, as Peter Woolley of the FDU poll says, “the $10 million Rolodex”—and more than $2 million in campaign funds. What he also would like to have is the enthusiastic support of George Norcross, the wealthy South Jersey Democratic power whose antipathy contributed to Corzine’s loss to Christie in 2009.
The bigger question is how large a role Christie—said to have a civil if not warm relationship with the senator—will play in Republican efforts to unseat him.
Menendez brushes aside the notion of bad blood lingering between the two, even though two months before the Senate election in 2006, Christie, the United States attorney at the time, subpoenaed records from a lease arrangement between Menendez and the North Hudson Community Action Corp., a nonprofit group that received federal financing backed by Menendez. The organization paid Menendez more then $300,000 over nine years to rent a building he owned in Union City.
Nothing ever came of the investigation, but Christie never publicly exonerated him. And though Menendez still bristles, he says, “I don’t live my life looking in the rear-view mirror.”
He does, however, spend it in the fast lane. “Menendez has done a remarkable job ascending,” says Baker.
Although reluctant to project about the 2012 campaign, Menendez is not shy about ticking off the legislative initiatives he has been involved in as a member of the Foreign Relations, Finance, Banking, and Energy and Natural Resources committees.
He cites a one-year patch to keep middle-class taxpayers from paying the Alternative Minimum Tax on top of federal incomes taxes; the credit card reform law; efforts to prevent offshore drilling along the mid-Atlantic coast; and securing federal tax credits and grants for small biotech firms in the state.
Menendez, the son of Cuban parents and the top-ranking Hispanic on Capitol Hill, has also taken a lead role on immigrants’ rights, and was disappointed by the Senate’s failure last December to pass the Dream Act, intended to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children if they attend college or join the military for two years.
The immigration issue is a burden for some politicians; for Menendez, it is more of an asset. The latest U.S. Census data show that there are 1.5 million Hispanics in New Jersey, comprising the largest minority in the state. Of those, approximately 645,000 are eligible to vote. Menendez benefits from their support as well as the financial support of wealthy Hispanics in South Florida.
Nonetheless, there is the perception that, of New Jersey’s two senators, Lautenberg has kept a closer eye on New Jersey while Menendez has other ambitions.
“Lautenberg has been the guy more focused on high-profile New Jersey projects,” says Baker.
As a six-term congressman, Menendez rose to head the House Democratic Caucus, the third-highest party leadership position. He was then appointed by Corzine to fill the latter’s vacated Senate seat in January 2006 and won election to a full term 10 months later. Soon afterward, he was appointed vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. And two years later—a mixed blessing—he succeeded Senator Charles Schumer of New York as chairman.
But now Menendez has work to do at home, and it is inevitable that he and Christie will cross swords. One weekend in February, Menendez told a New Jersey Education Association conference, “It’s time that we stopped blaming teachers for every little thing that goes wrong,” a slap at Christie, who has been on the offensive against the teachers’ largest union.
Two days later, Menendez and Lautenberg, along with Amtrak officials, unveiled a plan for a $13.5 billion rail link between New York and New Jersey—which transportation experts say is sorely needed—after Christie halted construction of a trans-Hudson tunnel financed by the state, the federal government and the Port Authority, citing the risk of New Jersey facing billions in overruns. Clearly, the two senators were trying to show that they, not the governor, could be relied on to get things done for their constituents.
Some see the 2012 race shaping up as an ugly grudge match between Christie and Menendez; others say Christie has little to gain and much to lose in such a spat—time, money, Hispanic support. And how wise would it be for him to thrust himself into a campaign in which Menendez holds a substantial lead? Christie himself will be facing a costly reelection battle the following year—assuming he’s not on the GOP’s national ticket in 2012.
“I don’t think Governor Christie will waste his political capital,” says Brad Lawrence, political guru of choice for New Jersey Democrats and Menendez’s longtime political adviser.
Wilson, the former state Republican chairman, sees the situation much the same way. “He’s going to have a say,” Wilson says. The question is how much he wants to involve himself.
“What do they get by poking a stick in the other guy’s eye?” Wilson asks.
Mitchell Blumenthal is the former New Jersey editor of the New York Times.