This has not been a good political year for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey). A June 17, 2010 Quinnipiac Poll reported that New Jersey voters disapproved of Menendez by a 43-38 percentage, his highest disapproval rating ever.
For Bob Menendez, however, the worst news may be yet to come. He faces two political quagmires, to wit; 1) the California U.S. Senate race, in which Menendez is involved in his capacity as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC); and 2) the failure of President Barack Obama and the Democratic- controlled Congress to date to extend the tax cuts enacted under the leadership of President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003. These tax cuts expire on December 31, 2010.
The California gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races are by far the most significant contests of Election Year 2010. The GOP has a real chance to score a “two-fer”. If Meg Whitman defeats former Governor Jerry Brown in the gubernatorial race and Carly Fiorina unseats incumbent U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, this would put the GOP in an excellent position to win California’s 55 electoral votes in the 2012 Presidential race. No Republican Presidential candidate has carried California since George H.W. Bush did so in 1988. If the GOP Presidential candidate carries California in 2012, it will be virtually impossible for Obama to be reelected.
The California Field Poll last week showed both races to be a virtual dead heat. This is an anti-incumbent, change year, however, and both Whitman and Fiorina must be rated as favorites at this point. For California voters, Jerry Brown is “old hat”, and Barbara Boxer symbolizes all the failures of the Washington political leadership establishment.
It certainly is not the fault of Bob Menendez that Barbara Boxer is in deep political trouble in the Golden State. He volunteered for the DSCC chair position, however, and a Boxer loss would doubtless result in a major loss of influence for Menendez on Capital Hill.
There is another potential factor that could make a Boxer loss most galling for Bob Menendez. At present, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the hottest Republican political property in the nation. It is virtually certain that both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina will invite him to campaign for them.
If he accepts their invitation, Christie would be an absolutely spectacular California campaign success. His high octane, passionate style is made to order for California campaigns. The California political contests would have a New Jersey side story: A Christie win and a Menendez loss.
While a Barbara Boxer loss in the California 2010 Senate race would result in a decline of the Washington stature of Bob Menendez, the failure of the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts would destroy his chances of being reelected in 2012.
A failure to extend the Bush tax cuts would result in 2011 in the largest tax increase in the history of the United States of America. The impact of this increase would fall disproportionately on New Jersey taxpayers, whose average dollar incomes are higher than those of other states, necessitated by the higher cost of living in the Garden State.
If Menendez has any doubt as to how this massive tax hike would cripple his reelection campaign, he need only consult with his fellow New Jersey Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg. When the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the tax increases requested by the then President Bill Clinton in 1993, Lautenberg voted “no”.
Lautenberg understood full well that federal income tax increases always have a disproportionate impact on New Jersey. He realized that a “yes” vote would have almost certainly resulted in a loss of his U.S. Senate seat to Chuck Haytaian in 1994. Frank Lautenberg came into politics from the business world, but he always had remarkably keen political instincts.
During his 2008 campaign for the Presidency, Obama promised to extend the tax cuts for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families that make less than $250,000. There are now less than six months left before the tax cuts expire, and Obama has failed thus far to make good on his promise.
For Bob Menendez, however, even the enactment of Obama’s proposal prior to the end of 2010 would still not prevent his reelection defeat. A family making $250,000 per year in New Jersey can be considered upper middle class, but not wealthy. In addition to hiking income taxes for all families earning more than $250,000, the Obama proposal would increase the maximum capital gains rate from 15% to 20%, and the maximum dividend rate from 15% to 39.6%.
This spells doom for Menendez with New Jersey “investor class” voters. Bergen County, for example, which Menendez carried in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, would almost certainly be carried by his Republican challenger. If Obama and the Congress fail to extend the tax cuts for families making less than $250,000, Menendez will suffer massive defections among working class voters who supported him in 2006 as well.
All this makes Bob Menendez most vulnerable in 2012. Frank Lautenberg also fared poorly in the June 17, 2010 Quinnipiac Poll, registering a 40-47 percent disapproval rate. He will be 90 years old in 2014, however, when he is up for reelection. Unless the New Jersey Democratic Party establishment members think a nonagenarian Lautenberg can become the Garden State’s answer to Strom Thurmond, they will likely maneuver to have him replaced by a younger, more viable candidate.
All of which makes the 2012 New Jersey U.S. Senate race a most inviting one for potential Republican challengers – the best chance the Republicans have had to win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey during the past three decades.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.