Menendez Reflects on 2010 While Charting Future Course

Posted November 11, 2010 at 5:00am

Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, expressed an interest Wednesday in retaining a seat at the leadership table in the 112th Congress, but he emphasized that his first priority is winning re-election in New Jersey in 2012.

In a telephone interview, Menendez conceded that Gov. Chris Christie (R) and the potential for a continued lackluster economy could create political hurdles for his re-election bid, despite the Democratic leanings of the New Jersey electorate. After two years focused on running the DSCC and electing Democrats nationally, Menendez said it was necessary to reassert his presence in the Garden State and renew his focus on his constituents.

But the ambitious, one-time House Democratic Caucus chairman acknowledged that he would entertain an offer from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to serve in the leadership, including as chairman of the Policy Committee, the only other official spot on the leadership team that is opening up. The current chairman, Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), is retiring.

“I certainly would keep the option open if Harry asks me to do something,” Menendez said. “Those are all appointments by the leader, and to the extent that he’d want me to be helpful to him, as I was in the last two years, that’s certainly a possibility. But I’m neither campaigning for [Policy Committee chairman] nor vying for it.

“My singular focus is going to be 2012, in terms of my re-election. It will take a good amount of my time and attention,” he added. “While I did a lot in New Jersey [these past two years] by making every moment count, I gave a lot to the DSCC. There is lots of room to make up, both in fundraising and politics back home. That will be a lot of what I do.”

Menendez has developed fruitful relationships within his Conference since his appointment to the Senate in early 2006, and Democratic sources suggest he has no intention of allowing them to atrophy over the next two years, even as he focuses on re-election. The Senator, who is respected for his policy and political acumen, is viewed as an asset at least partly because, as an ethnic Cuban, he is the only Hispanic Democrat in the chamber.

He is voluntarily relinquishing the DSCC chairmanship, as is customary for Senators who are up for re-election. With the possibility of another tough cycle for Democrats on tap given the Senate map, no takers have emerged to succeed him. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) is expected to remain as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Menendez has emerged from the challenging 2010 election cycle bruised but still standing. Although Senate Democrats were initially optimistic about making gains in the chamber, Menendez lost six seats, including President Barack Obama’s old seat in Illinois; a Pennsylvania race that had been given significant resources by the DSCC; and Sen. Russ Feingold’s seat, even though the Wisconsin Democrat had initially been viewed as a safe bet for re-election. Furthermore, Democrats failed to flip any Republican-held seats.

Yet Menendez is lauded by many Democrats for running an effective committee while keeping his party in contention. He preserved the Senate majority for Democrats amid a Republican wave, helping Reid fend off a well-funded GOP onslaught against his re-election campaign and holding on to Sen. Michael Bennet’s seat in Colorado after he trailed in that race until late in the campaign.

Democrats in the House weren’t so fortunate: They only picked up three GOP seats and lost more than 60, with several races yet to be called, and they lost their majority.

In perhaps the highest of compliments, Menendez has been likened in some quarters to Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), his predecessor at the DSCC and the driving force behind 14 Senate pickups in 2006 and 2008.

“Menendez possesses a very smart political mind, one of the best in the caucus. He’s worked very hard but is up against the obstacle of our success in ’06 and ’08,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “We weren’t going to continue to win seats until we had all 100 in chamber. I’m not sure there’s anyone else, including Chuck Schumer, that could have done a better job.”

Menendez said his party did “fairly well” in Senate races considering the political dynamics that came to define Election Day 2010. The Senator, noting that the president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections, identified several factors that multiplied the challenge.

They included the retirement of veteran Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh in Indiana and Dorgan (both seats went GOP last week); organized labor’s decision to target Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas’ Democratic primary — she prevailed but lost the general election to Rep. John Boozman (R); and the rise in third-party resources that bolstered Republican campaigns and helped the NRSC to expand the field of competitive seats.

Furthermore, the DSCC was fighting with limited resources and had to make strategic financial decisions based on where Menendez believed Democrats had the best chance of winning, he said.

“While I don’t like losing anything — I don’t like losing colleagues like Blanche Lincoln and Russ Feingold — considering the wave that was out there, we kept the majority and kept the Majority Leader,” Menendez said. “My counterpart talked about winning the triple crown, and we won two-thirds.”

Cornyn had previously boasted that the NRSC was positioned to pick off Obama’s old Illinois seat, Vice President Joseph Biden’s old Delaware seat and Reid’s seat. The Republicans were victorious in Illinois but fell short in Nevada and Delaware, with the GOP giving up on Biden’s seat after Rep. Mike Castle fell in the GOP primary to conservative upstart Christine O’Donnell.

At the outset of the 2010 election cycle, Republicans appeared in trouble, with nearly twice as many GOP seats up as Democratic seats, including several open Republican seats in the swing states of Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio. On the heels of the 2008 elections, the Democratic-held seats that were up appeared safe for the incumbents.

By the end of the cycle, with Obama’s approval ratings down, unemployment at 9.6 percent and the country sour on the president’s signature legislative achievements, Menendez was forced to build his majority-saving firewall around competitive races in the swing state of Nevada and the usually reliable Democratic states of California and Washington.

“Overall, I think our record’s pretty good considering what we were facing,” Menendez said.