November 2012 is roughly 15 months away. However, it is never too early to gauge the forecast for that election. In particular for New Jersey, there is a U.S. Senate race that will not only be on the radar for New Jerseyans, but most likely much of the nation. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has seen his approval numbers fluctuate between the low 30s and low 40s on average. Numbers that suggest to Republicans that Menendez is vulnerable and can be beat, which could open the door for the party to regain the majority in the U.S. Senate after a missed opportunity to do so in 2010.
If all predictors are right, Menendez will run for reelection. Also if most predictors are right depending on his opponent, it will likely be a far from an easy road to reelection. A new Public Policy Polling poll shows Menendez’s approval has dipped a bit as only 37% approve of the job Menendez is doing. 35% disapprove of the job he is doing and the fact that the two numbers are so close reflect a continual trend with his numbers on average, which should be some cause for concern. Additionally, the Republican disdain for him outweighs the Democratic love for him. There are some in the Democratic Party who privately would probably rather see another candidate running instead of Menendez. Winning over Independents could be the difference for him getting reelected especially based on who challenges him.
Like previous negative polls for Menendez, the one point that consistently is risen is the lack of a serious challenger for him. If Republicans fail to slate a candidate who could take advantage of Menendez’s low numbers, he will essentially win by default regardless of how many people probably dislike him.
Those close to Menendez point to his numbers not much better in 2006 when he was reelected on his own name. That time he was challenged by state Senator Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21). Kean lacked a few necessary characteristics during his campaign and lost by a decent margin to Menendez based on himself as well as the Democratic voter energy in 2006. Ironically, Kean polls the best against Menendez compared to other mentioned Republican nominees. Kean would lose to Menendez by a 44% to 39% margin.
However, it looks like two of Kean’s colleague’s in the state Senate are more likely to challenge Menendez in 2012. That is something that could be bad for the party considering some rather not risk a repeat of 2006 with Kean as the nominee. State Senators Joseph Kyrillos (R-13) and Michael Doherty (R-23) are popular members of their party and are seen as a different choice who could present the needed ideologies to please Republican voters while still beating Menendez in the general election. Unlike Kean, Kyrillos would trail Menendez by 19 points (48% to 29%) while Doherty would trail Menendez by 13 points (48% to 35%).
The state Senators are all running basically free of worries for their political futures this fall, but are putting electing other Republicans to State Legislature above politicking for the Republican nominee in 2012 against Menendez. That has not stopped Kyrillos and Doherty, in particular, from starting to explore a run and strategize accordingly for what could be a close battle for the right to challenge Menendez.
The majority of what most can say now is largely speculation, but it is speculation with enough legs to lead many to believe that it is only a matter of time before the hypothetical conversations become a reality. It would be a likely establishment (Kyrillos) against an outsider (Doherty) type of race. Kyrillos is the candidate who would be the likely closest ally to Christie besides Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Christie’s role in the race might sway which way the nomination goes. However, one cannot sleep on a gritty candidate like Doherty, who will get those at the grassroots level energized. That energy has leveled off since November 2010 for the most part, but by next November; the conservative activists in the state will be trying to unseat Menendez along with President Barack Obama.
As Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, expressed about what the Republican primary might be like,
“It’s a classic matchup. What we’re seeing playing out is that ideological division that’s not just in New Jersey, but across the country.”
That ideological division could be impacted by Christie and could also impact Christie. Christie, for the most part, has pleased traditional Republican primary voters, but has not always made them happy. A race between Kyrillos and Doherty could show if Christie and his allies are stronger than party outsiders in the state.
Besides what could be a drawn out primary battle, the campaign cash race would likely give Menendez a huge edge on top of the political winds of the state. The state; despite sending Republican governors like Christie, Christine Todd Whitman, and Tom Kean, Sr. to Trenton to govern the state; has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. To end that soon-to-be 40 year drought would require many things going right for the Republicans.
Kean does not come across excited about a chance to redeem himself from 2006. Kyrillos, outside of having Christie in his corner, seems to lack a certain punch about him. Doherty at times comes off a bit too conservative and might turn off conservative Democrats and Independents in a general election. All have flaws, but time is on their side to change that.
Perhaps comments by Steve Lonegan, state director of Americans for Prosperity; a conservative advocacy group; frames what is ahead for Republicans. As Lonegan stated,
“With Kyrillos, they’re going to be agreeing so much, people are going to say, ‘Well, we might as well stick with Menendez’.”
Lonegan ran against Christie in 2009 for governor and represents a more conservative brand of politics than Christie and many Republicans in the state. Lonegan’s commentary reflects an attitude expressed in states like Delaware in 2010. Many will recall that did not pan out well for conservative activists like Lonegan. Despite Republican victories in the state in recent years, those victories were shaped more on how Independents voted and if Republicans had more traditional voters than Democrats going out to the polls than a more conservative mood taking over the state. Governor Jon Corzine came off as a less than popular governor in 2009 and Christie took advantage of his moderate enough stance on certain issues along with his appeal to Independents to become governor. That is the type of race and mix of factors Republicans need in 2012.
For that reason, others like Glenn Paulsen; a former Burlington County Republican chairman; expressed a different tone. As Paulsen stated,
“From my standpoint, winning primaries without winning general elections are Pyrrhic victories at best.”
From these two perspectives, one can gather that Doherty might be the more popular among Republican voters, but Kyrillos would be the more likely candidate to appeal to a broader electorate. Kyrillos and Doherty represent two separate individuals: a career politician in Kyrillos who could take the next step in his long political career and a relatively newcomer to the State Legislature in Doherty with a more aggressive attitude for creating change in Washington, which conversely trickles down to the Garden State. Despite the two being allies in the state Senate, a closer look shows two candidates far from alike.
While the spotlight has been on Kyrillos and Doherty recently, the early attention was on biotech executive John Crowley. Crowley was seen as the best mix of charisma, being electable, and representing a fresh approach to handling state and national issues. Menendez’s edges against other candidates would probably shrink and possibly turn into numbers that trail Crowley. Crowley would have had money from his pocket to compensate for the incumbent fundraising edge Menendez would have in the race.
Furthermore, Ian Linker; a Bergen County attorney; is the only officially declared candidate; but has not drawn any real attention from any party in the state.
The polls and stories about possible candidates will continue to shape this race. However, with another poll in hand; not much has changed. Menendez looks like he is on a path to a default reelection victory. That can be prevented if Republicans can rally around the right type of candidate. That has yet to be seen and until then, not much will probably change regarding this race and its outcome.