Listen to audio version of this article
Bob Hugin spent at least $35 million last year to lose a U.S senate seat – rather handily in fact – to an ethically challenged Bob Menendez.
You’d think that has to be a cautionary history for any Republican seeking a senate seat in 2020 against Cory Booker.
Nonetheless, four Republicans want to give it a try – attorney Stuart Meissner, conservative-mother-U.S. Navy daughter Tricia Flanagan, engineer Hirsh Singh and Rik Mehta, a biotech entrepreneur who I met Monday morning in his hometown of Chester.
Mehta, who confidently says he would be the party’s best bet, has been making the rounds in GOP circles. And he talks boldly about an emerging Republican Party in the state, one more attuned with New Jersey diversity. He is buoyed by the GOP’s recent win in LD-1.
Mehta is of Indian descent and has worked at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and with the FDA. Currently, Mehta runs a business aimed at helping physicians cope with regulations.
An unknown in this race is Booker himself. As Mehta drank coffee with me in the Chester Diner, Booker has spent the last few days sending out emails seeking money and support in hopes of making the cut for this month’s Democratic presidential debate.
Booker probably has no chance to get the presidential nomination, but the VP nod is a definite possibility. If either occurs, Booker will run simultaneously for two offices – senator and president or Vice President.
This is crony politics at its worst and Mehta says that the public is “not oblivious” to this sort of thing. He may be right about that, but the question is, how many votes would this stunt cost Booker? That’s hard to tell.
Let’s keep in mind that Menendez’ problems were worse than seeking two offices at the same time and he still won.
This brings us to Donald Trump, whose approval ratings in the state are both steady and low. And it was Hugin’s party association with Trump that probably cost him votes.
Mehta acknowledges some of that, but insists that the president’s support among various communities in the state is increasing. He notes that unemployment for African Americans – normally a very dependable Democratic voting bloc – is at record low levels under the Trump presidency.
He credits Trump for keeping many of his campaign promises, including criminal justice reform. Mehta knows that one of the co-sponsors of the legislation in question was Booker. But he doesn’t give him any credit.
“Why didn’t he get it done when Obama was president, “ he asks. The point is obvious. It took Trump’s leadership to get reform accomplished.
In general, Mehta’s assessment of Booker is straightforward and harsh. All he cares about is higher office, he says.
“He’s been a failure at every level,” Mehta said.
That’s a typical political comment to be sure, but it seems a tad inaccurate given Booker’s electoral success. Still, as for his stewardship of Newark, Mehta says Booker “was no where to be found when the lead water crisis broke out.”
Mehta speaks of New Jersey “family values,” which to him means a state where families live their lives unencumbered by government regulations.
On two specific issues, Mehta appears to part ways with what has been conventional thinking in New Jersey. He opposes spending more money to expand government-run preschool programs and he favors loosening New Jersey’s gun laws.
While the gun laws in question are basically a state, not a federal, concern, Mehta says we must focus on the mental health conditions that spur violence regardless of the weapon used.
The election is 11 months away and the primary is six months away, but as we know time tends to move quickly.
Mehta is 42. Among other things perhaps, that means he wasn’t even born the last time a New Jersey Republican won a U.S. Senate seat.
That sizes up the challenge, but Mehta is undaunted, noting he’s overcome adversity and long odds before.