U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) underwhelming 62-38% performance in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary sent spasms of irritation through the party’s ranks at all levels, and reawakened newly considered possibilities for Republicans behind the candidacy of retired Celgene executive Bob Hugin.
The result by Menendez – who last year survived a corruption trial – revealed too the depth of fracture in a Democratic Party torn by an ongoing rivalry between Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and those lingering regional separations that make it difficult for Democrats to plot an alternative to Menendez – or to appear robustly united in his favor.
Animated by what they identify as the myriad idiocies of President Donald J. Trump, Democrats should be poised to run up the score in New Jersey. Instead they’re fighting with one another and saddled by a statewide candidate who ate far too many punches against the gumdrop candidacy of Lisa McCormick.
Still, “Any decision about a change would have to come from above – the [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer level,” a top level Democrat told InsiderNJ; and it won’t happen, insist most Democratic Party sources, despite quiet hand-wringing, particularly in battleground districts where the party is supposed to pick up a few House seats toward landing the magic 240seat victory and a Democratic majority.
Post election parlor games abounded.
There was this scenario:
“Murphy can’t get the budget passed with Sweeney there, so what they do is they give Sweeney the senate seat in exchange for a senate president more favorable to the governor’s goals,” one source suggested.
South Jersey, which controls the senate presidency and, through alliances, the Assembly, would never willingly relinquish statehouse power, no less for a senate seat likely coveted by U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1), the younger brother of South Jersey power broker George Norcross III, the presumptive bigfoot South Jersey stable mate alternative to Sweeney.
There’s no vibrant North Jersey brand, either, who has the ready, short-runway capacity to step in and go toe-to-toe with Hugin, who’s already giving Democrats fits with his steady fusillade of TV ads and relentless anti-Menendez press releases. U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s (D-5) name usually comes up in those conversations. He’s raised close to $4 million and projects a next generation patina alongside his weather-beaten congressional colleagues. But he’s in his own race for Congress against a decidedly less convincing candidate than Hugin.
“Mikie Sherrill,” another source suggested, referring to the helicopter pilot Navy veteran who last night racked up 32,000 votes – or double that of her Republican general election rival – in securing the Democratic nomination for a House seat in CD11. Again, she’s in a House race, where she’s favored to win, the antagonizing albatrosses of Menendez and President Donald J. Trump presumably cancel each other out to give her a chance at individuating her #me2 movement-fueled candidacy.
“Mikie for Governor in 2021,” the source pleaded.
No one else stands out.
No one else is sufficiently powerful or cunning or well known or in command of the issues with a record that demonstrates the candidate’s routinely game willingness to engage in political fights.
So it’s back to Menendez.
Every conversation leads back to Menendez.
“He’s got to go,” a Union County Democrat fumed this morning in a conversation with InsiderNJ, while offering no alternative and letting the subject go limp finally on his way to changing the subject. The numbers from last night showed the potential for a close general election. Hugin received 22,178 votes in Republican voter-rich Ocean County. Menendez received 28,519 in his home base of Hudson. Hugin beat Menendez in Somerset, increasingly a bellwether county in the Trump era: 9,855 to 8,230 (McKormick also beat Menendez in Somerset, incidentally). Menendez handily defeated Hugin in Middlesex: 19,155 to 8,119. That was a county where Christie, running as a populist Republican, beat Jon Corzine by four points in 2009 after having posted Menendez-Hugin-similar differentials in the primary that year: 17,265 (Corzine) to 9,552 (Christie).
But anyway, however many close election indications existed, there were too many fractures everywhere among Democrats to envision an ordered changing of horses, including a governor bogged down in a war with Sweeney and less than scintillating party organizations – give the senior senator that much more spring in his political legs. Then there’s the fact that New Jersey’s other senator, the ever-popular U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who looks like a 2020 presidential candidate, stands proudly beside his colleague, and gave the keynote address at Menendez’s campaign kickoff.
The fractures even extend, significantly, into Menendez’s home county, where state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) must get by Jersey City School Board Member Amy DeGise to claim the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). A GOTV animal who puts up monster numbers against zero opposition, Stack is supposed to be Menendez’s fail safe chairman in Hudson, the overdrive catalyst who will stem any suburban retreat with historic Hudson vote totals. But wins by Stack’s rivals in West New York, Bayonne and Harrison last night create a thornier path to the chairmanship for Stack.
“He’s putting his reelection in the hands of Amy DeGise,” one Hudson source groaned in the primary aftermath, fearful of a Stack loss on June 12th, which further imperils Menendez.
But for all the whining and worrying, for all the seething about missed battleground opportunities to help House newcomers, no one could quell the several headed-Democratic Party.
Waiting for the next round of Hugin ads, and the painful interfacing of congressional Republican candidates and Hugin, no one in the party had a plan other than to let Menendez go out, with Trump looming across the divide, and face the maelstrom on his own terms.