Around the U.S. in 50 Days: New Jersey

New Jersey is my home state and I consider it the California of the east coast, but things are looking up. In 2012, the political news will be a mixed bag of news and results. On the presidential front, Obama won this state in 2008 with 57% of the vote. In fact, the state has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Hell, we haven’t had a Republican Senator since the 1970s. Generally, Democratic presidential candidates carry somewhere between 53% and 57% of the vote. That sounds about right for 2012, although one would venture it will be at the lower end of the range. However, New Jersey has one less electoral vote this year. While Obama’s job approval nationally hovers around the 44% mark, in New Jersey it stands at 51.3%. That is safe enough territory to give their 14 electoral votes to Obama.

Incumbent Democratic Senator Robert Menendez is up for reelection. Originally appointed to fulfill the term of Jon Corzine when he became one of the most disastrous Governors in New Jersey history, he won a full term in 2006 with 53% of the vote against Tom Kean, Jr., the son of the former Governor. In early 2011, Menendez had a job approval rating of 44%, but by early 2012, it stands in the mid 30s. Sensing vulnerabilities, the GOP has been hard pressed to find a viable candidate to take him on in 2012. But first, he will actually face a primary challenge from Gwen Diakos, a defense contractor, who until recently was a registered Republican. She is a political novice going up against a well-funded ($10 million and counting) opponent. Additionally, in his tenure as head of the DSCC, he is credited with keeping the Senate in the hands of the Democrats in 2010 despite the political mood at the time. Many other incumbent Senators who successfully defended their seats attribute that success to Menendez and have promised their financial support.

Thus far, only state senator and Christie ally Joseph Kryillos has declared his candidacy for the GOP and this sets up a little intrigue and subplot in the election. There is not exactly good blood between Menendez and Christie and Kryillos is a Christie friend and ally. As US Attorney in New Jersey, Christie initiated an investigation into some questionable practices and activities by Menendez. Although no indictments have been returned, the investigation remains active. Democrats claim the whole thing is politically motivated. At the time, it was alleged that Christie was on the Alberto Gonzalez “hit list” of US Attorneys. Suddenly, his name came off the list after the investigation against Menendez was initiated. Welcome to New Jersey politics.

Should Kryillos emerge the winner from the primary, it would be a well-funded Democrat against a Christie ally- a surrogate Christie, if you will. Polling at this point puts Kryillos about 12 points down. There are other names being mentioned and with a June primary, there is plenty of time for decisions to be made. State senator Mike Doherty has been mentioned and would appeal to the more conservative/Tea Party factions of the party. However, out of deference to Christie and GOP unity, he opted against a primary challenge, and this only enhances his chances for a run, possibly against Lautenberg should he decide to run again. Tom Kean, Jr. might present a better challenge this time around. Not short on money, the Kean name in New Jersey is akin to the Kennedy name in Massachusetts. The knock on Kean is that he is a less than energetic campaigner and personality. Hypothetical polling puts him down by 5 points to Menendez, but that may be attributable to name recognition.

There are two other names out there that bear mentioning. One is Anna Little, the Tinton Falls resident, who threw a scrare into Frank Pallone in the 2010 6th District race losing by only 16,000 votes. In fact, she managed to carry Pallone’s home Monmouth County after aligning herself with the Tea Party. The other name is former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs who has been making some political noise. He certainly has the name recognition and star quality. One scenario has Dobbs running as an independent, but that would likely steal votes from any GOP candidate and allow Menendez to win with a plurality.

With the current congressional delegation 7-6 in favor of the Democrats, the state loses a seat in the House in 2013. Prior to 2010, the delegation count was 8-5. The state has a bipartisan redistricting commission and when the final map was released and approved in December, it became quickly obvious that the Republicans had gained an advantage. With no incumbents announcing any intention to retire, it was obvious that an incumbent-incumbent race was inevitable somewhere. And since population growth in the northern part of the state was in decline or stagnating, obviously any changes would occur there. Once this was done, all the pieces fell into place.

Of the twelve new districts, five have absolutely no interest- the 1st, 2nd, 8th, 10th, and 12th- three Democrats and two Republicans. Originally the most vulnerable Republican was freshman John Runyan in the 3rd District. However, his district became more favorable to the GOP when rural areas of Burlington County were added and Democratic Cherry Hill was removed. Although not likely out of the woods yet, he became a little safer. Likewise, Chris Smith, another Republican, was made safer when his main opponent was drawn out of his area.

In the 6th District, Frank Pallone appears safe and even safer if Little opts for a Senate run, although she has also expressed interest in another run at Pallone. Leonard Lance, the Republican in the 7th District, originally faced a couple of serious challengers, but both are now out for different reasons. Jun Choi was drawn out of the district while Ed Potosnak, who faced off against and lost to Lance in 2010, withdrew to accept a job with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. I mention Rush Holt in the 12th District only because challenger Ed Beck, a South Brunswick businessman, has been gaining some ground and notice for the GOP. That leaves the 5th and 9th districts.

Steve Rothman, a Democrat, was drawn into a potential contest against Republican incumbent Scott Garrett in the 5th District. Looking at that district, the territory clearly favors Garrett. The 5th stretches along the northern border with New York wrapping around to the Pennsylvania border to the west. It is considered New Jersey’s hinterlands- perfect Republican territory. When redistricted, it picked up some of Rothman’s territory, but not enough to alter its Republican nature. Rothman would be hard-pressed to win over voters in these areas. Instead, Rothman decided to run in the neighboring 9th District. Rothman’s home base of Teaneck has much more in common with the Hackensack-based 9th District held by Democrat Bill Pascrell. Of course, that sets up a Democratic primary between Pascrell and Rothman. That leaves Terry Duffy or Adam Gussan to run against Garrett in the 5th, and likely lose. Thus, the good news out of New Jersey for the GOP is a new delegation count of 6-6, a one seat Democratic loss.

In a sense, the Democratic belly aching illustrates their hypocrisy. Their main argument is that a 6-6 split is not truly representative of New Jersey’s blue status. However, it was a Democrat- Steve Rothman- who decided not to go head-to-head against a Republican when he had the chance. It is the Democratic Party that cannot field a viable candidate in the 2nd, 3rd, or 5th districts, nor in those central parts of the state, including Ocean County, a growing Republican bastion. It is the Democratic strongholds of the northern part of the state that have shown the greatest population losses over the decade. While it may be true that to win statewide all one need do is win six or seven northern counties, that is not true at the congressional district level. It proves that even sensible Democrats will flee from excessive taxation and regulation which have characterized New Jersey under successive Democratic administrations.

To conclude, Obama claims their 14 electoral votes while Menendez become the default choice as Senator. However, the Democrats lose a seat in the congressional delegation representing a one seat GOP gain.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 217 electoral votes to 223 to the GOP;
net gain of 2 Governors;
net gain of 4 Senate seats;
net loss of 6 House seats.

Next: Delaware, Maryland and DC