When Dan Cruz, an Andover Republican originally from Paterson, launched his bid for state senator last year against Republican incumbent Steve Oroho, he knocked on thousands of doors with his kids at his side. When election day rolled around, the incumbent carried the primary with 82.6% of the vote to Cruz’s 17.4%. Oroho then crushed Democratic challenger Frederick Cook 69.4% to 30.6%.
But if anyone thought Cruz would throw up his hands and give up, they could not be more wrong.
Undaunted, Cruz has announced his return to the campaign trail. Cruz still wants to be a senator. But this time, however, he has set his sights even higher and has become the first Republican to file to run against US Senator Robert Menendez in the 2024 election. An independent candidate, Nick Carducci, has also thrown his hat into the ring to challenge New Jersey’s senior senator.
With a two year window to campaign, Cruz is confident that he will have the time to build up the name-recognition and the relationships he needs to become the GOP’s champion in the race against the Hudson-based senator. “When I ran for state senate, I thought, it was too late,” Cruz told Insider NJ. “I’ve learned from before to start early, go meet as many people as you can, and go to as many events as you can. That way, you have a two-year head start.”
The race between Senator Menendez and Republican candidate Bog Hugin, a past pharmaceutical CEO who now serves as the state’s GOP chair, had been a bitter and costly one. Hugin burned up $36 million of his own money in one of the nastiest and most mud-filled campaigns seen in recent memory within the state of New Jersey. The incumbent had been embroiled in an investigation on ethics charges, something Hugin used to hammer Menendez with. Despite that, and the sophomoric name-calling exchanged amid a campaign which defined itself less as disagreeing leaders, representing a state of some 9 million, and more like black-eyed pugilists who spilled out of a Victorian pub, Menendez survived. The charges against Menendez didn’t hold up and he walked away with a rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee. Bruised but unbeaten, Menendez maintained the nearly fifty-year Democratic domination of New Jersey’s two US Senate seats.
Such powerful and wealthy men clashing did not put off Cruz and his belief that he can take down Menendez where Hugin could not. He looked to a recent example here in New Jersey: Ed Durr’s overthrow of Senate President Steve Sweeney. Durr, a conservative Republican like Cruz, spent pocket change and triumphed over the second-most-powerful politician in the state, a man brought down more by hubris than clever campaigning on the part of the truck driver-turned-politician. “We know that money sometimes can play a big part in winning elections,” Cruz said. “We saw Ed Durr versus Senator Sweeney as David and Goliath. Money in this situation is not going to matter as much as me going out, knocking on doors, talking to people on a daily basis the same way that I did in my state senate run.”
Menendez, Cruz feels, is out of touch. Menendez has been a career politician since the 1970s and Cruz is seeking to present himself as a relatable, close-to-the-ground man who would represent the concerns New Jerseyans have.
The senator since 2006 had a rough run even before his clash with Hugin. In a primary race, Menendez was challenged by Lisa McCormick, a Democratic candidate whose name has since appeared against Bonnie Watson Coleman’s in 2020 and Governor Phil Murphy’s in 2021. Of those races, only against Menendez did McCormick register on the electoral radar, however. She took 37.7% of the vote against what should’ve been a rock-solid bet. This was a clear sign of dissatisfaction with Menendez at the time. Monied and machine-backed, to emerge a winner with only 62.3% sent worried chills up the spines of many New Jersey Dem bosses as he geared up for his fight with the multi-millionaire former Celgene executive.
These examples give Cruz some assurance that Menendez is not invincible. McCormick the small-time Democrat was unsuccessful in her bid, but Durr the small-time Republican was successful in his.
Indeed, that very quality is what Cruz is banking on to make him a viable challenger. “My family and my children come first,” Cruz said. “I will also be a person who can relate to the average individual who’s going to work, who has struggled. I can relate with people from all ages, all socio-economic backgrounds, not this person who was extremely far left or too far right. Most of my views are conservative, but I want to be able to serve the state of New Jersey.”
In the year since Cruz’s initial foray into politics against State Senator Oroho, Cruz said that he felt the Republican Party has been afraid to venture into the crucial inner cities. Nevertheless, he stated that defeating Senator Menendez is his goal, not undermining fellow Republicans.
Cruz referenced an interview with Insider NJ last year. “We spoke last year when asked about Jack Ciattarelli and if he had a chance. My response was, if he doesn’t go into the inner cities, he doesn’t have a shot. If he would have taken his time and not be afraid, well, who cares what they’re going to say? You have to be able to talk to all people. That’s one of the things that I bring to the table. I can genuinely connect with all types of people. It doesn’t matter where they are, where they come from, socio-economic, gender, I can talk to anybody. l knocked on 5,000 plus doors here in Warren County. I’ve never had a bad experience knocking on doors. Senator Menendez and also the entire Republican Party need to know that I will not stop. I will be in every city and every town in the state of New Jersey.”
Cruz’s mother is a Paterson resident. He said that Paterson Police Detective and PBA President Alex Cruz, currently running on the Republican ticket for Passaic County Commissioner with Troy Oswald, is his cousin.
He praised former Governor Chris Christie for taking his campaign into Newark, New Jersey’s largest city and Democratic stronghold. “A lot of people call me arrogant, but there’s a difference between arrogance and being confident. The difference between that and being genuine. I’m extremely genuine. Once people meet me, they see who I am and what I’m about. They meet me, my family, they meet my children. My children go everywhere.”
Cruz has worked in the public education sector for 18 years and considers his campaigning experiences to be educational opportunities for his kids, letting them see how civics works from the inside-out.
Among those civic beliefs Cruz espouses is term limits. He believes that may be part of the solution to healing the polarized and divided nature of the United States. “As far as where our country is heading, there is division amongst both parties. It was really eye opening to see the entire political overview of the state of New Jersey, and I’ve met so many people. Running against Menendez was something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. I believe in term limits.”
Senator Menendez has been returned to office for 16 years. If Cruz had his way, a senator would only have the ability to run once or twice. It is rare for an aspiring politician to advocate setting a cap on his own political prospects, but Cruz does not want to stay in DC forever, should the voters send him there. The senator’s son, Robert, has also been put forward as a Congressional candidate, earning the endorsement of Governor Phil Murphy, among others. Menendez Junior is an attorney, had served on the Hudson School Board of Trustees, and as a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He handily won the CD-8 primary against David Ocampo Grajales and Ane Roseborough-Eberhard. He goes into the General Election facing Republican Marcos Arroyo and five third-party candidates as of this writing.
“If the senior Menendez comes out against me saying I don’t have experience, my response to him would be that I have more experience than your son,” Cruz said. “There’s been talk of nepotism bringing him on board, but only time will tell. At the end of the day, Robert Junior is going for a congressional seat, and the Republican candidate needs to come out strong in Hudson County. The entire Republican party needs to stick together. How can we win if we are divided amongst each other? There are a lot of egos, there’s too much pride, and the way we will be able to defeat Menendez is to come together.”
Cruz pulled no punches in his view of Senator Menendez and his right to be re-elected. “There should be some prerequisites. ‘What are you doing? What have you done? What differences have you made?’ I can’t think of one difference that he has made for the state of New Jersey. I’m talking about cities who have elected him, like Newark, Paterson, Trenton, all these major populated cities in Hudson County. What has he done for them? They still live in poor neighborhoods, the schools are destroyed. We can keep giving money to the school districts, but the school districts are not showing an improvement.”
The senator is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Cruz charges that Menendez is more willing to help countries abroad than at home. “He parades giving another country $50 plus billion dollars. How can we think about giving another country $50 plus billion dollars when we have our own American people struggling? We have veterans in need who fought for our country, and current military personnel on the ground as we speak protecting our beautiful American soil. He goes and parades how we took another terrorist down, but doesn’t want to reward our veterans. Prices as we know it are sky high. Inflation is sky high. New Jerseyans need help, just like every American needs help across the country. We have inflation rising on a daily basis and a mother or father have to make a decision whether to put gas in their car or feed their children.”
While the race for the Senate seat is still two years away, New Jerseyans can expect Dan Cruz to continue to be a presence in politics as he readies himself for the long haul of the campaign ahead. Biding his time, building up his networks and platform, Cruz says he is here to stay. “It is time for all Republicans to work together. I ask all Republicans in office and those out of office to join me in defeating Menendez. If there is one thing I can assure everyone of, I am not dropping out.”