On Friday, Rep. Rob Andrews announced that he will not challenge Senator-select Robert Menendez in a primary for the seat vacated by now-Gov. Jon Corzine. While Rep. Frank Pallone is still contemplating a challenge, this would make it extremely difficult for him to mount a serious challenge, especially as the national Party is attempting to discourage a costly primary. Should the Democrats unite behind Menendez as expected, they will be in a strong position against a fragmented GOP with a candidate who reflects the state well.
Tom Kean, Jr. is the sole Republican candidate, but the fragmentation of the NJ GOP runs deep. Kean is the classic RINO, fitting into the Whitman wing of the GOP. The establishment will be solidly behind him, but grassroots activisits will be tough to come by. While Republicans in some states can afford defections either on the right or the left, New Jersey is too heavily Democrat to allow for defections. Kean has polled well early, but it is difficult to see the campaign going the entire year without old divisions resurfacing. How and whether Kean manages to unite all factions of the GOP while still managing to reach out to independents will probably be the determinative factor in this race.
Playing in Kean’s favor, though, is that Menendez will be sworn into the Senate in time to cast a vote on the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito. The Alito nomination presents Menendez with a unique problem. National Democrats are expected to oppose the nomination overwhelmingly, meaning that there will be a tremendous amount of top-down and grassroots up pressure to oppose the nomination. At the same time, though, Menendez must confront the fact that the Alito nomination is a rallying point for the Italian-American community. No Italian-American has ever served in a higher government post than Supreme Court Justice, and Antonin Scalia is the only one to have held that post. Should Menendez vote against confirmation, it could well cost him votes among New Jersey’s 1.5 million Italian-Americans.
Thus the saga that is New Jersey politics continues. Unfortunately, the rank and file GOP once again is without a reason to get excited. As a result, Republicans are likely to see a repeat of last year’s gubernatorial campaign in which Forrester polled competitively early but ended up getting his clock cleaned by an energized Party that was firmly behind their nominee. Hopefully the New Jersey Republican Party will eventually get the message that it cannot out-Democrat the Democrats and will need principled opposition and a focus on fiscal conservatism if it hopes to start winning at the statewide level.