Menendez has key allies for possible primary

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), tapped last week by Gov.-elect Jon Corzine (D) to fill his Senate seat, begins his yearlong campaign to win a full Senate term with a huge advantage: the support of key county chairmen.

John Currie, the chairman of Passaic County’s Democratic Party, said in an interview with The Hill yesterday that he is endorsing Menendez.

The congressman is almost certain to get the backing of the Democratic chairmen from Essex, Hudson, Middlesex and Union counties, parts of which are in his 13th District.

Those four counties, encompassing Jersey City and the outskirts of Newark, make up 40 percent of the statewide Democratic vote, Menendez spokesman Matt Miller pointed out.

And the congressman is likely to win the support of Democratic officials in Bergen County, part of the 9th District, which is held by Menendez ally Rep. Steven Rothman (D).

The early local support for Menendez may make it nearly impossible for Reps. Robert Andrews, Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, all Democrats who have mulled Senate bids, to wage viable primary campaigns. It also reflects, Currie acknowledged, Democrats’ concerns that Republicans have coalesced around Senate hopeful Tom Kean Jr., a state senator and son of the former governor and Sept. 11 commission co-chairman.

“If we don’t learn from what the Republicans have done in the past, you’re definitely going to weaken your chances,” Currie said.

A contentious Democratic primary would not be resolved until April, giving Kean four more months to run unopposed — raising money, meeting voters, possibly airing sunny, autobiographical ads and, ultimately, leaving the Democratic nominee potentially bloodied.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), the chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), last week ventured to Newark to help Kean raise approximately $150,000.

Currie and Wyatt Earp, the chairman of the Ocean County Democratic Party, said a Democratic county chairman’s endorsement, which entails being identified on the ballot as the county’s official choice, guarantees a candidate 60 percent of the vote. In a two-way race, Earp added, that candidate can expect to win at least 80 percent.

A Democratic aide in Washington predicted that Andrews and Pallone would be smart enough to avoid getting into a primary with the governor’s handpicked successor. The aide added that Andrews, if he’s politically savvy, would wait until 2008 to run for Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat, assuming Lautenberg, 81, retires. Rothman also has said he might run for the Lautenberg seat.

Aides to Pallone and Holt declined to say anything further about their bosses’ possible Senate bids. Bill Caruso, a spokesman for Andrews, did not return phone calls.

The congressmen issued statements last week saying that in light of Corzine’s announcement they would now confer with friends and family about their political plans.

Democrats said the congressmen were simply running the numbers, trying to calculate whether enough counties are still in play for them to run possibly successful campaigns.

A Democratic aide said Holt might run for the Senate seat even without the backing of any county chairmen, hoping to capitalize on public discontent with cronyism and backroom deals.

An aide to Holt would only say: “He does not have a timetable necessarily for making that decision, but he’s had a number of people come to him and suggest he get into a primary to take his message on good government forward.”

While Andrews could count on the support of the Democratic hub of Camden County, in his 1st District, Pallone has relatively few Democrats in his 6th District. Indeed, the congressman’s chief selling point before the Corzine announcement was that he was a Democrat who could win Republican votes, useful for a general election but less helpful in a primary.

The NRSC, meanwhile, has been quick to label Menendez Corzine’s second choice. Many Democrats had wanted Gov. Richard Codey (D) to take the Senate job; Codey repeatedly signaled that he did not want it.

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