The headlines nationwide Saturday morning that Sen. Robert Menendez would soon face federal criminal corruption charges raised serious doubts about the political life of the New Jersey Democrat.
With the Justice Department poised to file charges that Menendez improperly used his influence to benefit ophthalmologist and contributor Salomon Melgen, Menendez, 61, could soon find himself on trial in federal court. If convicted, the nation’s highest-elected Democrat of Cuban heritage would be under intense pressure from Senate colleagues to resign.
Menendez’s vow Friday night that "I am not going anywhere" notwithstanding, press speculation has already begun inside and outside the Garden State about what would happen when and if the senator doesn’t finish his second term (to which he was elected in 2012).
Should a vacancy occur, Gov. Chris Christie would certainly appoint a fellow Republican to fill the seat until a special election was held to fill the remainder of Democrat Menendez’s term.
Two years ago, when Christie had the same opportunity following the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, he surprised fellow Republicans by naming his state’s appointed Attorney General Jeff Chiesa as a "caretaker" senator. Chiesa didn’t run in the following special election that year.
Instead, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan carried the GOP standard. With little money, he drew 42 percent of the vote against Democrat Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark and widely touted as a Democratic star.
"Gov. Christie made a mistake in the way he handled the Senate vacancy," a New Jersey GOP consultant who requested anonymity told Newsmax. "Had he appointed someone well-known who intended to run such as [state Senate Republican Leader] Tom Kean Jr., the Republicans would have won."
The same source told us he expected that if Christie was presented with another opportunity to appoint a U.S. senator, he would almost certainly name Kean, the son of a former governor and grandson of a U.S. representative, or he would name fellow state Sen. Joe Kyrillos. Both are considered moderate-to-conservative Republicans in the mold of Christie.
"And if Christie named Kean, it would mean that he would leave the Senate and allow [fellow Sen. and Christie ally] Kevin O’Toole to become Republican leader, which the governor very much wants," added the same New Jersey GOP consultant.
Kyrillos, 54, was chairman of Christie’s first winning bid for the statehouse in 2009. In 2012, as the Republican nominee against Menendez, he drew 39 percent of the vote. According to at least one source, Kyrillos was disappointed he was not named to the Senate vacancy caused by Lautenberg’s death.
"I am certain Gov. Christie, if presented with the opportunity, will name young Tom Kean," former Republican representative and 1989 gubernatorial nominee Jim Courter told Newsmax.
Among New Jersey Democrats, a Menendez exodus from the Senate would be helpful in winnowing down the list of contenders to run for the governorship in 2017 (when Christie by law must step down). State Senate President Steve Sweeney is considered the choice of Democratic leaders. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, an insurgent liberal, has also been eyeing the race. A special election for the Senate might open another door for Fulop, and make the nomination for governor easier for Sweeney to nail down.
Another Democrat mentioned for the governorship who could switch to a Senate race is Philip Murphy, former Goldman Sachs executive and, until last year, U.S.ambassador to Germany. A graduate of Harvard and the Wharton School of Finance, Murphy, 57, is well-connected in business and civic affairs. Among the boards and/or committees he serves on are those of the NAACP, the Center for American Progress, and the U.S. Soccer Foundation.
The scenario of a free-for-all Senate race in New Jersey depends, of course, on the fate of Sen. Menendez. That remains to be seen.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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