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Senate Jockeying Intensifies

With Jon Corzine (D) trading in his title of Senator for governor-elect of New Jersey, the formal jockeying to replace him accelerated Wednesday, as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus formally endorsed Rep. Bob Menendez (D) for the post.

Corzine will have the power to appoint his Senate successor once he is inaugurated as New Jersey’s chief executive on Jan. 17, but has been mum on his plans for succession during the duration of the gubernatorial campaign and in the hours since his election victory on Tuesday.

But New Jersey Representatives eager for Corzine’s appointment broke their silence Wednesday, with a vengeance.

“I’d like to say my own record of 31 years of service in New Jersey, my understanding of average New Jerseyans and my leadership in the House would make me a valuable addition to the U.S. Senate,” Menendez said in an interview.

All but one Member of the state’s Democratic delegation publicly expressed their interest in filling the remainder of Corzine’s Senate term.

Viewed by many as the frontrunner for the position, Menendez refused to make predictions about whether he will win Corzine’s nod. The Democratic Caucus chairman said flatly: “I’m not going to handicap my chances.”

But Menendez said he was feeling “surprisingly good” after the New Jersey Democratic victories, with sources saying the seven-term Member is about to junk his low profile and ramp up an active campaign to succeed Corzine.

One ace in Menendez’s deck could be his endorsement from the CHC, which penned a letter on his behalf to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), asking Schumer not to recruit another candidate into the race — namely New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey (D).

Corzine is the former chairman of the DSCC, and it would probably not go unnoticed by him and Democratic leaders that appointing Menendez and setting him up to win a full Senate term outright in 2006 could earn the Democratic Party goodwill among Latinos at a time when Republicans have made serious inroads with this potentially decisive voting bloc.

“His credentials are there,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus political action committee, in an interview. “He is the highest ranking Hispanic in Congress. If you look at his credentials, he’s done an outstanding job since he’s been here.”

Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), the only Garden State Member not publicly lobbying to succeed Corzine, also publicly weighed in on his fellow New Jerseyan’s behalf.

Rothman said he has been behind Menendez for the better part of the year, and on Wednesday was drafting a letter to prominent state and national Democrats laying out why he’s backing his friend for the job.

“I believe that Bob is not only the best candidate, but the most deserving,” Rothman said.

One of his possible selling points: Menendez has more money in the bank — $4 million — than any of his possible competitors.

Despite the drumbeat for Menendez on Capitol Hill, his fellow New Jersey Democrats were not discouraged, and ever eager to join in the competition.

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