Cory Booker | AP Photo

Since former Gov. Chris Christie won reelection in 2013, New Jersey Republicans have lost ground in the state Legislature and have been nearly wiped out in the congressional delegation. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo

Booker, struggling to gain presidential traction, keeps Senate fallback safe

TRENTON, N.J. — Sen. Cory Booker’s attention may be on his White House bid, but if that doesn’t work out, the New Jersey Democrat has a warm Senate seat waiting for him — and not much competition from Republicans.

Booker’s presidential run has exposed some problems that, on their face, should be vulnerabilities for his Senate reelection in 2020. His popularity took a dip statewide after he declared his presidential campaign, as memories of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s frequent forays to New Hampshire in 2015 and 2016 remain fresh in voters’ minds. And Newark’s water crisis has resurrected news about corruption that took place at the agency that controlled the city’s water infrastructure while Booker was the city’s mayor.

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But the GOP failed to develop a strong bench under Christie, who, by the time he left office in 2017, was the most unpopular New Jersey governor since the advent of public polling. Since Christie won a landslide reelection in 2013, New Jersey Republicans have lost ground in the state Legislature and have been nearly wiped out in the congressional delegation.

The Senate seat held by Booker has so far has attracted four candidates, but none has held local elected office. Three of them have previously run quixotic independent Senate campaigns.

By comparison, most of the five New Jersey House seats that have flipped from red to blue since 2016 have attracted attention from Republican self-funders and elected officials looking to turn the seats back.

That’s partly because 2020 will mark 48 years since New Jersey Republicans last won an election for U.S. Senate.

Last year was particularly demoralizing for the GOP. Bob Hugin, a newly retired pharmaceutical executive and Marine veteran, spent $40 million against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez, who had just survived a corruption trial by hung jury. Many New Jersey Democrats were panicked late into the campaign, as some polls indicated a close race. But President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity in the state, along with attacks by Menendez on drug pricing controversies surrounding Hugin’s company, could not be overcome. In the end, Hugin lost by 11 percentage points.

Now, with Booker likely on the ballot in 2020 and still relatively popular in New Jersey, and Trump at the top of the ticket, what seemed so close to Republicans’ grasp last year looks farther away than ever.

“Having spent such a significant amount of money and going up against someone who has been wounded on the Democratic side, the fact that [Hugin] he still lost by double digits, yeah that’s got to hurt,” Krista Jenkins, a pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said.

Even if Booker is on the ballot for president or vice president, he’s likely to be a Senate candidate as well. New Jersey Democrats changed the law last year to ensure that Booker can appear on the ballot for Senate and president at the same time.

“He’s wasting New Jersey’s resources and time running around on a failed presidential bid,” New Jersey Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt said.

Steinhardt remains hopeful when discussing Booker’s Senate seat, and said he’s been steadily rebuilding the New Jersey Republican Party’s fundraising base since taking over as chairman two years ago.

“I don’t ever think anything is ultimately out of reach.”

Responding to Steinhardt’s comments, Tom Pietrykoski, Booker’s campaign spokesperson, said New Jersey’s junior senator “continues to fight tirelessly on behalf of all New Jerseyans to ensure their voices are heard in Congress.”

“He has delivered on some of the most pressing issues facing our state, including historic investment in underserved communities, landmark criminal justice reform, advancing the critical Gateway project, helping New Jersey families recover from Superstorm Sandy and much, much more,” Pietrykoski said. “ Cory has been making his presence felt every single day, and he will never stop working for New Jersey.”

None of the four Republicans lining up to run for Senate appears to be a top-tier candidate.

Last month, Stuart Meissner, a securities lawyer and former federal prosecutor, announced a Senate exploratory committee — six years after running an independent campaign for Senate that he said was intended to draw attention to his call for alimony reform. He wound up with about 2,000 votes in that race.

“I think I’m a different Republican. That’s what it boils down to. I was, in fact, a Democrat before. So I know what Democrats think like,” Meissner said in an interview.

Meissner said his legal experience — things like winning a $22 million settlement for a whistleblower client against Monsanto — will have cross-aisle appeal.

“I don’t think Republicans have put up a nominee that has my experience of being a prosecutor for 11 years and on top of that represented individuals against various disreputable people on Wall Street that screwed them over,” he said.

Hirsh Singh, an engineer who in the last two years has unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor and a South Jersey House seat, has already declared his candidacy for Senate and has the support of Bill Palatucci, a Christie confidant.

Tricia Flanagan and Natalie Rivera — who both ran for Senate as independents in 2018 and each got about half of one percent of the vote — have also declared candidacies for the Republican Senate nomination, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

All four are staunch Trump supporters, which proved to be a liability for Hugin’s campaign.

“I really do line up with what President Trump is doing in the White House,” said Rivera, a social service coordinator. “I decided it would be better for me to run as a Republican this time, and pretty much I’m just aligned with how the Republican platform is.”

Singh believes the Trump backlash in 2018 was fueled by the “Russian-Mueller report narrative” that has died down since the report’s release. He also said he thinks more Trump voters will show up than before. And even as Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric threatens to alienate voters in immigrant-rich states like New Jersey, Singh — both of whose parents immigrated from India — believes his own heritage will be an asset.

“A lot of the tactics that the Democrat Party has utilized to garner not only the progressive vote but also the independent and minority groups to vote for them has been pointing to Republicans and basically saying they’re racist,” Singh said in an interview. “I don’t think they’ll be able to do that when you have someone who is a young Republican but at the same time I’m completely open-minded and love people from across the spectrum.”

Palatucci, who was arguably Christie‘s closest confidant, said Singh brings a lot to the GOP.

“He’s a good image for the party: Young guy, Indian American, great family from South Jersey,” Palatucci said. “All those factors have given me the view that he’s earned it. That’s why I’ve kind of come to support him.”

Flanagan did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.

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