U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is all, but likely to be the Democratic nominee once again for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in 2012 in New Jersey. Who will challenge Menendez seems to be the $1 million question the last few months. A handful of state senators, the lieutenant governor, and a variety of wildcards have been talked about. The only known challenger is Bergan County attorney Ian Linker. Based on whom enters the race, Linker would likely have a long road to the Republican nomination. The Republican Party in the state will look to slate a tough challenger against a potentially weak Democratic opponent.
Outside of Linker, a trio of state senators could be viewed as the best hopes for the party after the popular businessman John Crowley announced his intentions to stick to the private sector and not run. State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) challenged Menendez in 2006 and fell short. Nonetheless, with a shallow field of options; many assumed that Kean would get a rematch and a chance to redeem himself in 2012.
However, Kean seems to be most apprehensive of the three members of the state Senate who are likely challengers for the Republican Party nomination. That leaves state Senators Joseph Kyrillos (R-13) and Michael Doherty (R-23) as de facto top contenders. Kyrillos and Doherty are a bit more conservative than Kean and could likely battle for the heart and soul of the base for the nomination. A pair or trio of allies could easily become enemies as they battle for the nomination and endorsements. Endorsements by Governor Chris Christie and members of the Republican delegation in the U.S. Congress will be key as well as any national power players to whom emerges as the eventual nominee.
As PolitickerNJ this week broke down:
“Kyrillos possesses the salt-and-pepper-haired establishment resume: veteran state senator, former party chairman, Monmouth County resident, former state director of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, and close advisor and personal friend of Christie’s.”
“Doherty fills out the ex-Army Captain role of party maverick: a mountain man lawmaker from far-flung Warren County who endorsed Ron Paul for president, forged alliances with Steve Lonegan and Murray Sabrin, meat-hooked Marcia Karrow to snatch the state Senate seat from the Hunterdon/Warren power elite, and weathered at least one nose-to-nose session over last year’s budget with the Republican governor.”
The potential contest is set up for a similar formula that has occurred over the last few years in the Republican Party: establishment versus grassroots/outsider. All likely candidates, though, are fairly even when it comes to recognition. Thus, gathering the necessary support becomes that much more important. If Kyrillos can use his closeness to Christie to his advantage, he could build an edge. Conversely, Doherty has a closer connection to the Tea Party in the state and can build enough momentum like Anna Little did in New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District last year.
Kyrillos has not announced plans to run, but has begun the exploratory committee and process. That is something that Doherty and others like Kean have yet to do.
If the race for the Republican nomination for president has shown the state and country anything it is that whomever ultimately challenges Menendez; they will not rush to do so and instead gather a sense of opinions and feelings as well as the mood of voters in the state.
The race for the Republican nomination for president may be decided partly by New Jerseyans next year based on the status of the race. However, the status of that primary could play a role in the U.S. Senate Republican primary that would involve potentially both Kyrillos and Doherty. As Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray observes,
“Unless the presidential race is not wrapped up by the time of the Republican Primary, you have to figure that turnout will be low and that helps Doherty, because the Tea Party will turn out, while traditional, middle-of-the-road Republicans won’t be coming out. It’s still uphill for Doherty, because if Kyrillos runs, there’s no question Chris Christie will wreak havoc with the county chairs who don’t get out the vote for Kyrillos.”
Murray not only highlights the role that primary voters will ultimately play in whom challenges Menendez, but points out how important Christie will be. Then-Governor Jon Corzine was leading the state in 2006 and had no impact in Kean garnering the Republican nomination. Now with Christie in Trenton, the Republican primary will definitely be shaped in some way by the governor this time around.
If all that was not enough to create a complicated mess for the Republicans as they look to unseat Menendez, another wrinkle has been added by Anthony Del Pellegrino. Del Pellegrino is the creator of DraftNapolitano.wordpress.com, a site dedicated to Del Pellegrino’s hopes of building a grassroots candidacy and interest for Fox News personality Judge Andrew Napolitano.
Napolitano is from Newark and went to Princeton University. For Del Pellegrino, Napolitano offers a change of pace and option for what he views as dissatisfaction with a political process that is dominated and controlled by career politicians.
Whether Napolitano’s candidacy gains any traction or not, the nomination looks to be either Kyrillos’ or Doherty’s to lose.