Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is vulnerable as he faces his first re-election, but similar to Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), he still does not have a top tier GOP challenger. This is a Blue State which will be difficult for any Republican to win in a presidential election year when turnout is far higher.
The President defeated Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in New Jersey by a 57% to 42% margin, and the state is still regarded as an Obama stronghold.
The last time a Republican won a Senate race in the Garden State was in 1972, when Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. To win in New Jersey, a Republican must carry 60% of independent voters, which is what Gov. Chris Christie (R) achieved in 2009. Christie defeated the incumbent Democrat, and Obama made four trips to the state in an effort to derail the GOP.
Senator Menendez was first elected in 2006 with a lackluster 53% in a very Democratic year. Both of the potential Republican Senate candidates have low name ID, and fundraising will be a significant hurdle in this state which is dominated by the New York City and Philadelphia media markets. The GOP Senate primary will be held on the same day as the presidential primary, and White House considerations are already a major factor in the contest.
As of now, it appears the contest will feature a face-off between a Mitt Romney versus Ron Paul backer. The most frequently mentioned candidate is State Senator Joe Kyrillos, a past chairman of the state GOP, who was also the state director of Romney’s 2008 campaign. He served in the Reagan Administration before winning a State Assembly seat in 1987. He has the support of many people in Gov. Christie’s organization, and is expected to have the backing of a solid majority of the 21 county chairmen. The Senator has formed an exploratory committee but has not officially declared his candidacy.
His major potential primary challenger is fellow State Senator Mike Doherty, who won a huge upset victory in 2009. He is best known for endorsing Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, and is expected to have the enthusiastic support of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
Doherty is an Army veteran who also has substantial support from several Tea Party groups. A number of his top supporters are well known Christie critics. Because neither candidate has formally entered the race, the Governor has not made an endorsement, but is expected to back Kyrillos. Doherty is portraying himself as a fiscal conservative, but Kyrillos is expected to attack him as a pork barrel politician who only supports cuts outside of his district. The Governor cut $9 million for a hospital in Doherty’s district, and the Senator was vocal in his opposition.
Doherty knows the GOP establishment has been defeated in past primaries and they will not keep him out of the race. A decade ago all of the county chairmen were supporting Rep. Bob Franks in the gubernatorial race but he was upset by former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler.