The Menendez Buzz on the Chamber Train

EN ROUTE TO WASHINGTON, D.C. – To be clear, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is not charged with a crime and no one is calling for him to step down, but his timing alone in the event of his resignation would have significant political impact.

It could mean the presence of a second statewide candidate on the ballot this year and the addition of another dynamic in the governor’s race, a scenario that players – mostly Republican at this point – are talking about behind the scenes on the New Jersey Chamber’s Walk To Washington.

The Miami Herald yesterday reported that the FBI raided the West Palm Beach office of the doctor who provided Menendez flight to the Dominican Republic and allegedly underage prostitutes.

In a statement, Menendez denied any wrongdoing. But national news coverage of Menendez’s troubles has gone into overdrive and sources in both parties speculated about his political future.

“Does it look bad? Yes,” said a close ally of the senator’s, a Democrat speaking on condition of anonymity. “Someone is on a witch hunt for him and now they have an outlet. It doesn’t matter that the moron doc owes $11 million in back taxes…could it be that? Now they have a reason to look at him more in depth and they will use it to squeeze Bob Menendez.”

On the Chamber Train, another Democratic source acknowledged that the news was tawdry, but insisted most Democrats did not believe it would ruin Menendez.

“I think it will end up being bad PR but not career-ending,” said the source.

“Damaging to his chairmanship, but nothing more than that,” said another source through gritted teeth on the train, referring to the senator’s incipient chairmanship of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Strictly hypothetically in the interest of how the process works, if Menendez were to resign prior to August 27th, New Jersey would hold a general election for the Senate seat this coming November.

If the senator waits until after that date to vacate the seat, the state would face a 2014 general election for the Senate seat.

In both cases, Christie would choose Menendez’s successor, who would run for the seat as the incumbent.

Inevitably names surface.

Republican sources offer the following politicians on Christie’s U.S. Senate short list: Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21), state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13), state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40), and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21).

Kean has an edge, according to one source, in part because he’s the son of a former governor and was the first to run against Senator Menendez in 2006. But arguably more significantly, the scion’s departure would shake up the state Senate and enable the promotion of others, including Bramnick and O’Toole.

Bramnick would become the state senator from the 21st and O’Toole would become the minority leader.

Sources in both parties in the aftermath of the news discussed the Democratic Party’s political options in the case of a Menendez meltdown.

If he resigns sooner rather than later, Menendez has the potential to strengthen state Sen. Barbara Buono’s (D-18) gubernatorial prospects if the Democratic Party selects a strong candidate to run for Menendez’s seat. He could, moreover, deprive the national GOP from being able to hold a U.S. Senate seat for an additional year.

But – and this fact had at least one GOP source gleeful over the senator’s troubles – Menendez could also put a safe Senate seat in play with Gov. Chris Christie on the ballot.

Polls show Christie in a strong position to win re-election, and his statewide coattails could deliver a U.S. senator one year after unsuccessful Republican candidate Kyrillos lost by 19 points to Menendez when Christie was not on the ballot.

If Menendez delayed his resignation, he would give the Republican incumbent more time on the clock in which to raise money and increased name ID potential as an incumbent, but he would give the Democratic candidate the distinct advantage of not having to run for the seat with Christie on the ballot.

The candidate would have the additional plus of another Democrat on the general election ticket with U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-NJ) seat in play come 2014.

Both Newark Mayor Cory Booker and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) are actively pursuing the seat.

"It’s not a political environment that’s particularly warm for incumbents, but it looks like Booker has little to be worried about as the campaign season draws to a close."
—Krista Jenkins, poll director and professor of political science, FDU.