Early handicapping favors Menendez

With more than a year to go before New Jersey chooses a U.S. senator, University of Virginia Political Science Professor and pundit Larry Sabato says as of now, incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez is favored.

In his first handicapping of the 2012 race, when a total of 33 Senate seats are up for grabs, Sabato has placed the state in the “leans Democrat” category.

“Despite lousy job approval numbers, Sen. Bob Menendez remains a favorite for re-election, especially if Republicans nominate a presidential candidate unlikely to do well in the Garden State,” Sabato said.

To date, only attorney Ian Linker has delcared his intent to run, while and state Sen. Michael Doherty, (R-23), Washington Township and state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13) of Middletown are exploring the possibility.  Sabato cites a report last month from PolitickerNJ that Kyrillos may rethink his run in the event Texas Gov. Rick Perry wins the Republican presidential nomination as part of his reasoning for favoring Menendez.

Menendez has seen weak poll numbers at times, but a hefty – and growing – war chest will be an asset in a race that as of now won’t feature a self funder.

With 33 Senate seats up for election – 23 held by Democrats and 10 held by the GOP – Sabato said it is likely Republicans can pick up the four seats needed to take control of the Senate.  Only two seats held by Republicans are likely to be competitive, Sabato said, while as many as 17 held by Democrats – including New Jersey – are at least potentially competitive.

As it did last year, when the GOP came close, but ultimately failed to gain control of the Senate, a lot will depend on the candidates Republicans choose to represent them.  The party forfeited opportunities in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado last year when primary voters nominated staunchly conservative Tea Party candidates, Sabato said. The party could fall into the same trap in 2012.

“From the perspective of Labor Day 2011, the GOP has a strong chance to win the Senate next year,” Sabato said.  “Indeed, given the volume of ripe pickup opportunities, it appears that the Senate is the Republicans’ to lose. But with some bad decisions by GOP primary voters, and a revival of Democratic fortunes in 2012 if the economy takes a significant upturn, they could still forfeit this opportunity.” Early handicapping favors Menendez