New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, which was the last time Sen. Clifford P. Case won re-election (he was first elected in 1954). Since then, two Republicans have been appointed to the Senate to finish vacated terms, but they didn’t run to hold their seats.
But 46 years later, the GOP might be able to pick up a seat in the Garden State.
Sen. Bob Mendendez, a Democrat, is up for re-election, and recent polls indicate he is not very popular in his home state. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found Menendez is disliked even though other top Democrats in the state enjoy high approval numbers. For example, 46 percent of New Jerseyans approve of the job recently elected Gov. Phil Murphy is doing, while 29 percent disapprove. Thirty-six percent have a favorable opinion of him, compared to 24 percent who have an unfavorable opinion.
Menendez, however, is struggling. Just 22 percent of adults said they view the two-term senator favorably, while 35 percent view him unfavorably. Just 33 percent approve of the job he was doing, compared to 37 percent who disapprove.
The reason for these low numbers is obvious: Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office to help a longtime friend in exchange for gifts and vacations, including $750,000 in campaign donations. The friend, Salomon Melgen, a Florida optometrist, was also indicted. Menendez’s trial ended in a hung jury in November 2017. The government dropped the other charges, and his Senate ethics investigation ended with him being “severely admonished” by the ethics committee. He was not forced to resign.
But while Menendez may have escaped legal consequences for his actions, he may suffer electorally. That’s a big “may,” however, as Menendez has never been all that popular with Garden State voters but still continues to win re-election. He was first appointed to the Senate in 2006 to fill a vacancy, but won his election that year with 53 percent of the vote, despite having only a 23 percent approval rating (his disapproval rating was lower, at 13 percent). He won re-election in 2012 with 59 percent of the vote, even with a 33 percent approval rating (his disapproval rating was again lower, at 23 percent).
So there is a slight difference this time around in that his disapproval ratings are higher than his approval ratings, which is good news for Republicans. But they still don’t have a candidate yet, though pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin appears to be the current frontrunner.
Hugin can help finance his campaign, something the GOP will need to compete with Menendez, who will be able to raise big bucks in the state. Hugin so far has put $7.5 million of his own money into his campaign. But Hugin’s obvious drawback is his connection to the pharmaceutical industry, which is currently not very popular due to the high costs of prescription drugs and the opioid crisis.
Still, putting the Springfield Republican against a corrupt Democrat could work. Republicans will have to work hard, however, as the odds are against them. Even though New Jersey is able to elect Republican governors like Chris Christie, New Jersey is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the GOP has better chances to pick up Senate seats in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, like Wisconsin and Montana.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, told NJ.com that Republicans “have at least 10 better takeover opportunities before they even get to New Jersey.” His website still lists the Senate race as “solid Democratic.” The Cook Political Report, one of the standards in political ratings, lists the New Jersey race as “likely Democratic,” instead of “solid.”
If the GOP can dedicate some resources to NJ, and they have a candidate who is decent at fundraising (or self-funds their campaign), Republicans may have a chance to knock out a Democrat in a blue state. They certainly shouldn’t squander the opportunity.