New Jersey GOP lacking a name to face a more vulnerable Menendez

New Jersey Republicans may find themselves in a familiar spot heading into 2012 — absent a top-tier statewide candidate to face a Democrat with soft approval numbers.

After serving as the party's Senate campaign chief in 2010, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) faces his own reelection race in two years and early polling suggests he's vulnerable. The problem for Republicans, though, is nothing new — the party is staring at a thin statewide bench.

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"There really isn't anybody on the horizon for Republicans right now," said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, who noted that even though Menendez's numbers are less than stellar, potential challengers are hardly lining up to take him on in 2012.

"Republicans would certainly like to have somebody if the environment is right, but there doesn't seem to be any real sense of urgency to go after Menendez," he said.

Part of the reason is that despite a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University/PublicMind poll that found just 31 percent of registered voters in the state have a favorable opinion of Menendez, he's already gearing up his formidable political organization ahead of 2012.

Menendez's political power base is concentrated in the most populous part of the state and his prospects are sure to improve, given that he's running in a presidential year in a traditionally blue state.

"You win Hudson, Bergen, Essex and Passaic counties and you can lose just about every other county in the state and still win if the turnout is high," Democratic strategist Tony Bawidamann said of the territory where Menendez's support is strongest.

Still, Republican state party chairman Jay Webber said while it's far too early for 2012 horse-race politics, he expects Republicans to only grow in strength statewide over the next two years, putting the party in solid position to field a strong challenger to Menendez.

Republicans in the state finally broke through in 2009 when Chris Christie (R) upset Gov. Jon Corzine (D) just as the national environment began to turn against Democrats. It came after years of statewide failure on the part of Republicans.

In 2002, Republican Doug Forrester was unable to wrest a Senate seat from Democrats even after Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) withdrew from the race under an ethics cloud. In 2006, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R), the son of a popular former governor, lost handily to Menendez despite the Democrat being a "person of interest" in an ongoing federal investigation during the height of the contest. And in 2008, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) defeated former Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) by a wide margin. Those six years also included two gubernatorial loses for Republicans.

Still, Webber argues Republicans are now ascendant in New Jersey and ready to build on the past two years with the popular Christie at the helm of state government.

"The governor's win in 2009 started the party's comeback," Webber said. Along with wins for Christie in 2009 and Rep.-elect Jon Runyan last month, Webber points to "enormous victories at the county level, which show that the Republican brand is back and trusted in this state again."

Perhaps the biggest test of that will be whether the party can find a strong challenger for Menendez.

Near the top of the list is Kean, the fomer state senator who came up short against Menendez in 2006. Then there's the newly-elected Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, both of whom were mentioned as contenders by a handful of political insiders in the state. Another possibility is Anna Little, the Republican who lost to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) just last month.

Some have also mentioned Webber as a potential candidate against Menendez in 2012, but he wouldn't say whether or not he's even contemplated the race.

"I'm completely focused on 2011 right now," said Webber.

The most intriguing possibilities, and likely the best candidates to take on a statewide Democrat, either aren't ready to run in 2012 or are simply not in a position to jump in.

Case in point is Republican state Sen. Jennifer Beck. A solid campaigner who ousted an incumbent in a hard-fought race in 2007 despite being massively outspent, she's virtually certain to run statewide at some point in the not-too-distant future, but observers doubt it will happen against Menendez.

The other name bandied about is former state Sen. Bill Baroni, a centrist Republican who chaired John McCain's presidential campaign in the state in 2008. He was a rumored candidate against Lautenberg two years ago but passed on the race. Now he's a Christie appointee heading up a major transportation and development agency, and is seen as highly unlikely to jump into a Senate race in 2012.

Even with the lack of an obvious top-tier contender, Republicans in the state say Christie doesn't intend to let Menendez go unchallenged in two years' time.

"We may not be a red state by any means," said Webber. "But Democrats can't take it for granted like they used to because we're not a blue state either."