New Jersey Republicans are silently hoping for a conviction in the criminal trial of Democrat U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, while Democrats pray for an acquittal. My message to both sides is: Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.
If Menendez is convicted, all the major Democratic players, including a Governor Phil Murphy, will unite to force him not to run again. They will make efforts to unite behind an alternative candidate, such as a Donald Norcross, a Josh Gottheimer, or a Frank Pallone. The new Democratic candidate will be heavily favored to be elected in the November 2018 election in this deep blue Democratic state. In short, a Menendez conviction will create virtually no political problems for the New Jersey Democratic Party.
If Menendez is acquitted, however, he will become a Class A migraine political headache for a Governor Phil Murphy. The incumbent Senator will feel vindicated and insist on running for reelection. Yet his reputation for ethics and integrity will have been destroyed by the trial, in spite of an acquittal.
This is already resulting in Menendez’s poll ratings sinking to subterranean depths. Yet Murphy will have no choice but to endorse him, given the tenuous relationship between the governor-in-waiting and Hudson County Democrats and the New Jersey Cuban community in the wake of l’affaire Vincent Prieto.
In a race against Menendez, the NJGOP will have an outstanding opportunity to achieve the first election of a Republican to the U. S. Senate since the reelection of the late U. S. Senator Clifford Case in 1972. And the Republicans would have the ideal candidate to run against Menendez in the person of State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr.
Tom Kean, Jr. was defeated by Menendez in the 2006 election. The major factor contributing to his loss was the overwhelming unpopularity at that time of the incumbent Republican president George W. Bush. Bush 43 was at the depths of his approval ratings, due to the Iraq war and public criticism of his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. No matter how vehemently Kean, Jr. criticized Bush’s Iraq war policies, he found it virtually impossible in the perception of the electorate to distance himself from a fellow center-right Republican president.
To be sure, the year 2018 promises to be a very difficult year for Republican Senatorial and Congressional candidates, given the well-deserved horrendous reputation of President Donald Trump. Yet this should pose no problem for a Tom Kean, Jr candidacy.
The Bush 43 unpopularity was due to his policies rather than any personal or ethical issues. The Trump unpopularity is due to his indisputable bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, and the Mueller investigation. Tom Kean, Jr. is the son of a governor who had the best record of minority and gender outreach of any Republican statewide official in modern New Jersey history. He is a person of impeccable ethics. He would have no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing himself from The Donald.
Most significantly, Tom Kean, Jr. would come into the campaign with an overwhelmingly compelling message. His message in the 2006 campaign message was, “Bob Menendez is a person of horrible ethics who, as a United States Senator will disgrace both himself and New Jersey.” His message in 2018 will be much simpler: “I told you so!”
Tom Kean, Jr. has grown significantly in stature since the 2006 race. His tenure as Senate Minority Leader has been distinguished by his intellectualism, independence, political and policy acumen, and his success in recruiting first rate candidates in uphill races, such as Ileana Schirmer in LD 14 and Kelly Langschultz in LD 38. If he wasn’t quite ready for a statewide race in 2006, he certainly will be ready in 2018.
As a United States Senator, Kean, Jr. could play an historic role. A growing number of center-right GOP senators want to steer the party away from the virulent political cancer of Trumpism and move forward along the lines of a Reagan philosophy of opportunity, growth, and ethnic and racial tolerance and inclusiveness. Tom Kean, Jr. would be a welcome addition to this group.
The Kean family has truly been the first family of New Jersey Republican politics. Robert Kean was an historic figure in the United States House of Representatives, a man way ahead of his time in terms of civil and human rights, a man of goodness and greatness. His son, Tom Kean became New Jersey’s greatest governor of the 20th century. If Bob Menendez is nominated by the Democratic Party in 2018 for reelection to the United States Senate, Tom Kean, Jr. would be the perfect Republican challenger. In such a rematch, Tom Kean, Jr. would almost certainly emerge victorious.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.