Jersey Turns, Dems Panic; Torricelli, Anyone?

A powerful clue that U.S. Senator Robert Menendez might ultimately be forced to withdraw from his bid for a full term in New Jersey emerged last Friday, when he addressed the question head-on just hours after the world learned that he is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

“The answer is no,” he said.

That may sound a touch familiar to New Jerseyans. It was, after all, around this time four Septembers ago that Senator Robert Torricelli’s re-election campaign—besieged by similar speculation—spent a weekend attaching a simple, defiant message to Torricelli lawn signs around the state: “Nobody fights harder.”

The very next week, of course, Mr. Torricelli quit the race. In tears.

And the rest was history—and the subject, no doubt, of recurring nightmares for many Republicans: Former Senator Frank Lautenberg was recruited to replace Mr. Torricelli at the last minute, and the Democrats ended up with a double-digit win.

For now, Mr. Menendez’s fellow Democrats—from Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, to Jon Corzine, the governor who handed Mr. Menendez his Senate seat in January—are pledging their support. The same way they once stood by Mr. Torricelli.

Indeed, what is unnerving for Democrats in New Jersey and Washington—and for Republicans too, for that matter—is just how deep the similarities between the Torricelli and Menendez dramas run.

In 2002, you’ll recall, Mr. Torricelli, dogged by a variety of ethics questions, consistently underperformed in the polls, running even for much of the summer with a drab Republican candidate who’d begin his speeches as follows: “My name is Doug Forrester, and I’m the guy running against Bob Torricelli.” By mid-September, Forrester’s lead hit double digits—and this in a state that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) elected a Republican to the Senate since M*A*S*H was a first-season show.

Likewise, Mr. Menendez has struggled to connect with the public the way an incumbent Democrat should in a blue state—especially in a year when the national climate is so favorable to his party. When a poll was released earlier this month—before news of the investigation broke—that placed Mr. Menendez five points behind his Republican challenger, State Senator Tom Kean Jr., he joined Mr. Torricelli as one of only two New Jersey Democrats in the last 34 years to trail in a Senate race in September.

As with Mr. Torricelli, it is ethics that have dragged down Mr. Menendez, who won his appointment in part through the hefty political muscle he built as the reputed boss of Hudson County, a colorful collection of gritty towns that could easily have spawned just about every character Damon Runyon ever wrote about. The ghosts of his machine past have haunted Mr. Menendez in periodic news stories this year, and Republicans have made the notion that he has disqualifying “baggage” their central line of attack.

That is why the federal investigation is so damning for Mr. Menendez: The jury is already poisoned against him. Sure, he can cry foul and vow to fight. But the race was essentially a tie before this, so any fallout at all puts Mr. Kean in the lead.

Now, Mr. Menendez’s options are limited—and all bad. He began by attacking the prosecutor as overly partisan—a weak response given the dozens of corrupt Republicans who have been brought down by Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney leading the Menendez inquiry.

And his ongoing efforts to change the subject to national politics—as Mr. Torricelli sought to do in ’02—can now be trumped by Mr. Kean, who can lift a page from Mr. Forrester. “My name,” he can tell the masses, “is Tom Kean, and I’m running against a man who is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.”

If Mr. Menendez tanks in the coming weeks, it really will feel like 2002 all over again for national Democrats, who need a gain of six seats to win back the Senate—a feat that would be impossible with a loss in blue-state New Jersey.

The ’02 switch worked because in Mr. Lautenberg, a very well-known and reasonably well-liked retiree, Democrats had a
serviceable replacement in the wings. This time they have a rock star: one Richard J. Codey, who left office in January, kicking and
screaming, as perhaps the most personally popular chief executive in the state’s history.

But look at us, getting ahead of ourselves. No Democrat is going to abandon Mr. Menendez—unless his poll numbers drop. And even then, there’ll be no “switcheroo” unless Mr. Menendez, like Mr. Torricelli before him, falls on his sword.

Jersey Democrats, for now, aren’t holding their breath.

As one put it: Mr. Torricelli’s ego couldn’t stand losing an election; Mr. Menendez’s, apparently, can. Jersey Turns, Dems Panic;  Torricelli, Anyone?