22 Days to Election Day: New Jersey

In New Jersey, there is a senatorial race this year. Incumbent Democrat Robert Menendez seeks reelection to a second term. The last time a Republican represented New Jersey in the Senate was 1972. There are a few things about Menendez that would make one believe he is somewhat vulnerable. In 2006, when running for a full term after being appointed to complete the term of Jon Corzine, he only garnered 53% of the vote against Thomas Kean, Jr., the son of a former popular Governor. His approval ratings in the state are nothing to brag about. And despite being in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2010- a high profile position- less than 50% of New Jersey residents know he is one of their Senators.

He will run against former state senator Joe Kyrillos, a close Christie ally and personal friend of the Governor. He lost a bid in 1992 in a run for a House seat. As a state senator, he was considered somewhat moderate and would often work with Democrats. In fact, he became Christie’s point man with the state senate on his reform agenda. It will be a tall order to defeat Menendez despite his low numbers.

New Jersey is an expensive state in which to run a campaign since they are dependent on the expensive New York and Philadelphia television markets. Thus far, Menendez has out-raised Kyrillos 5-1 and has been hitting the airwaves basically introducing himself to voters, a strange tactic for someone who has sat in the Senate for seven years now. That should be the task of Kyrillos since his name recognition in the state is even lower than that of Menendez. There are two ways to break that 40 year Republican drought in the Senate- either run a strong, highly recognizable Republican, or just wait until 2014 and take on the very elderly Frank Lautenberg if he decides to run.

As far as the presidential race goes, Barack Obama will win the state’s 14 electoral votes. In 2008, he took 57% of the vote including the usual Democratic population centers in the suburbs of New York City as well as the entire southern half of the state. The fastest growing county, however, is Ocean and that is a Republican bastion in New Jersey. And while Obama won neighboring Burlington County, it is highly doubtful he will carry it in 2012. Thus, although he will win the state, it will be more in the 52-54% range.

As a result of the 2010 census, New Jersey loses a seat in the House. Redistricting is done by a bipartisan commission. For the next decade as the population shifts south when not actually leaving the state, the Fifth District was enlarged and now pushes deep into Bergen county. The Fifth is represented by Scott Garrett who, incidentally, would assume leadership of the House Budget Committee should Romney win. Instead of facing Garrett in a Republican incumbent versus Democratic incumbent race, Steve Rothman challenged Bill Pascrell in the Ninth District. Pascrell had represented the Eighth, but when Albio Sires’ 13th District was eliminated, he moved into the 8th. Rothman lost the primary challenge in the Ninth. He was probably the most liberal of the Democrats in the New Jersey congressional delegation. Garrett’s district is expansive and stretches from his home turf along the northern border of the state along the Pennsylvania border all the way into pieces of Rothman’s former territory in Bergen county which is a hop, skip and a jump from New York City. Had Rothman run against Garrett, he likely would have lost since Garrett’s new district retained all of its former boundaries and now included some conservative Bergen county areas. Democrats shy from Garrett’s territory referring to it as the “political hinterlands” of New Jersey.

In the 10th, Donald Payne’s untimely death resulted in his son assuming the seat in a special election. This is very heavy Democratic territory and he should easily win a full term.

Two other congressional districts are of interest. Redistricting made the task a little easier for 3rd District Republican incumbent John Runyan. The former Philadelphia Eagles star won in 2010 against John Adler. Runyan received the backing of the New Jersey Tea Party and faces Shelley Adler this year. She is the wife of the former congressman who died of a heart attack shortly after his electoral defeat in 2010. Rumor is that John Adler would have attempted another run against Runyan this year. Democrats hoped that a reconfigured Third District would push to the northwest into Democratic territory nearer Trenton, but instead pushed more eastward into Republican Ocean county. If Democrats are to upset anyone in New Jersey, it would be in the Third District. However, both polling and fundraising figures predict a Runyan victory and, perhaps, a stake in the heart of the Adler name in this district.

Conversely, if Republicans are to pull off an upset, it would be in the 6th where Democratic incumbent Frank Pallone will again go up against the Tea Party-backed Anna Little in a rematch of 2010. Pallone, an unabashed supporter of Obamacare, won by 10 points in 2010 against a relatively unknown Little who is now better known. Even in 2010, she was a veritable pain in Pallone’s neck. But, this is not 2010 and although redistricting made the 6th slightly more conservative, those changes are not great enough to overcome a 10% loss from 2010 and create a Little victory this year.

There are two questions on the ballot in New Jersey. The first asks whether judges should pay more for their pension and health care benefits. As part of Christie’s attempts to tackle the state’s $112 BILLION unfunded liability for pension and health care benefits, this was passed as law. However, state courts ruled that this amounted to a “diminuition of salary,” which is prohibited under the state constitution. A judge’s salary cannot be changed during their tenure on the bench.

The second is a $750 million bond issue dedicated to college construction and technological upgrades. Most of the money would be restricted to public colleges (and private colleges with less than $1 billion in endowments which basically eliminates Princeton). About $150 million is dedicated to community colleges whose enrollment is growing in the state. The state would essentially kick in 75% of the cost of any project with the college providing the remaining 25%.

A side note on Chris Christie and his political future: In 2013, there will be two gubernatorial races and New Jersey is one of them. Christie has stated repeatedly that the job of turning around New Jersey is basically a “work in progress.” There is no doubt that Christie’s bombast and demeanor has excited some within the GOP. It would appear that one potential opponent in 2013 may be Newark Mayor Cory Booker who has also increased his standing within the Democratic Party. A Christie-Booker match up for Governor would literally be a battle of New Jersey political heavyweights. Quite frankly, as a resident of New Jersey, I am not so sure Christie would win. If anyone could defeat him, it would be Booker; anyone else, then Christie wins easily.

But, should the worst case scenario happen- a Christie loss to Booker, if Booker runs- then Christie would have an easier path to 2014. Specifically, he could take on the aged Frank Lautenberg for his Senate seat if Lautenberg even runs. If he doesn’t, then Christie’s job would be even easier. The fact is there are two options here for Christie- another term as Governor and/or a run for the United States Senate. If Booker becomes Governor, that would make Christie’s chances against any Democrat that much easier for a Senate run since other than Lautenberg and Booker, there are not many big-name Democrats who could win a statewide race against Christie.

In conclusion: Robert Menendez will win reelection to the Senate and Obama will take their 14 electoral votes. In the House, the current delegation favors Democrats 7-6. Because they lose a seat, the new delegation will be evenly split, 6-6.

Running totals thus far: Romney leads in the electoral count 159-138 although Republicans lead in the Senate 34-24. In the House, the current count favors Republicans 132-104.

Next: New York