Home>Campaigns>Republicans love to hate Bob Menendez. Can they find anyone to run against him?

Sen. Bob Menendez at the groundbreaking for the Portal North Bridge. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Republicans love to hate Bob Menendez. Can they find anyone to run against him?

No top-tier candidates are seriously considering tough race, at least so far

By Joey Fox, April 28 2023 3:20 pm

For years, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez has been the guy New Jersey Republicans love to hate. Next year, they’re in luck: Menendez’s seat is up for election, giving them another chance to finally take the three-term senator down.

Behind the scenes, however, state Republicans are not optimistic about the race. Few believe there’s a realistic path to victory, and no formidable candidates have even hinted at a potential campaign so far.

The reasons why are fairly simple. New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state that hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972. In a presidential year – when Joe Biden is near-certain to be carrying New Jersey by double digits – the math for a statewide Republican doesn’t check out, and anyone who runs is likely headed for a substantial loss.

“Regardless of what happens in the ’24 presidential election, we have a pretty strong sense of which way New Jersey’s going,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s hard to imagine somebody’s going to look at this race and say, ‘Here’s my shot.’”

Instead, the focus among Republicans is largely on the 2025 gubernatorial election and other state-level races. Most GOP candidates who want to run statewide, including party standard-bearers like 2021 gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli, see that race as far more enticing than a doomed Senate campaign.

But Republicans still have a vested interest in finding someone, anyone, who can give Menendez a real race.

That’s in part because it’s always worth having someone who can take advantage of an unexpected situation. With Menendez reportedly under federal investigation once again, there could be some big October surprises on the way.

More realistically, though, it’s because Republicans want a strong leader for the statewide ticket. Even if the Senate seat itself is out of reach, Republican leaders see a strong Senate campaign as a key part of the effort to hold the highly competitive 7th congressional district and win dozens of county and local offices across the state.

So who, then, could fill that role? State Republicans aren’t sure yet, but there is a particular category of candidate they’re interested in: up-and-comers who see a Senate campaign as a stepping stone to other offices in the future.

Statewide races, even hopeless ones, have the benefit of connecting candidates with voters and party leaders up and down the state. A solid campaign fighting the good fight against Menendez – waged perhaps by an ambitious state legislator or a wealthy businessperson with money to spare – could lead to a more winnable campaign in the future.

“If they dispatch themselves well, and they cultivate good relationships, then there is the possibility of running for something more realistic down the line,” Rasmussen said. “That’s the calculated risk: that you will impress folks, and you will have a future.”

New Jersey has seen a few Republican candidates who fit that mold. Christine Todd Whitman’s successful 1993 gubernatorial campaign was presaged by her unexpectedly strong showing in the 1990 Senate race; more recently, Bob Hugin went from being Menendez’s 2018 opponent to serving as chairman of the state Republican Party.

“If you run for senator and you do a very good job, you can be a Christie Whitman,” said Hudson GOP chairman Jose Arango, the leader of the state’s 21 county party chairs. “Maybe you can be a contender.”

One prospective candidate who fits that mold is State Sen. Mike Testa (R-Vineland). It’s widely known that Testa has ambitions for higher office, and he may see a Senate race against Menendez as a precursor to a gubernatorial or congressional campaign later on. 

Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Mendham) and Warren County Commissioner Lori Ciesla (R-Lopactong) could also be intriguing options.

But a 2024 campaign comes with substantial sacrifice; it would be hard on candidates who still work full-time and under-appreciated by national Republicans who don’t see New Jersey as a viable target. And just as a good campaign could help a politician launch their career, a bad campaign could sink it before it even begins.

“The fear is that you bury yourself,” Rasmussen said. “You lose by so much that you don’t get the chance to run again.”

Given all these impediments, most if not all top-tier challengers seem likely to take a pass on the race, forcing Republicans to look for alternative options.

Two relative unknowns are already in the race: Daniel Cruz, a former school board member and State Senate candidate, and Shirley Maia-Cusick, an immigration consultant. Neither has particularly piqued the interest of state Republicans yet, though Maia-Cusick does seem to be running something of a serious campaign.

“Right now I don’t see them as strong potential candidates for the Senate,” Arango said. “But you have to respect people’s decisions and their willingness to participate in such a difficult situation. Maybe they’re not the most qualified people right now, but they deserve respect.”

In the absence of more traditionally qualified candidates, Republicans may well end up with someone like Cruz or Maia-Cusick as their Senate nominee. That’s not necessarily a catastrophe – as Arango noted, “superstar” candidates can pop up from unexpected places – but it raises the risk of a weak top of the ticket.

That’s essentially what happened in 2020, when Republicans failed to find a highly credible candidate to run against Senator Cory Booker and ended up with a primary field of second-tier candidates. Their ultimate nominee, Rik Mehta, was better than some of the alternatives, but many Republicans considered him to be a bit of a boondoggle in the general election.

There’s still plenty of time, of course, for the GOP to scout out good candidates this time. Many of the party’s strongest possible options probably wouldn’t even announce their campaigns until after New Jersey’s 2023 state elections are over, so the process for sorting out the 2024 GOP slate still has a long way to go.

At some point, though, Republicans are going to have to get serious about finding a Menendez opponent. Whoever ultimately becomes the nominee has a tough road ahead of them – but if they play their cards right, they could be a future governor or congressperson.

“You have to be clever about it,” Rasmussen said. “You have to impress people. You have to lose well.”

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