U.S. attorney clears Bob Menendez of Christie trouble, and now maybe the Tea Party will help out, too

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Chris Christie. (Via hobokencondos flickr stream.)
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From the Department of Things That are About 5 Years Too Late comes news that there will be no prosecution of Bob Menendez. The announcement, conveyed by the feds in a letter to Menendez’s lawyer and reported over the weekend by the Star-Ledger, officially puts an end to what was Chris Christie’s funniest-smelling action as U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

It was just 60 days before the 2006 midterm elections that Christie let it be known that his office had subpoenaed records from a nonprofit group that leased office space in a building owned by Menendez—a bombshell revelation that immediately imperiled Menendez’s Senate campaign and allowed his Republican opponent, Tom Kean Jr., to spend the rest of the campaign telling New Jerseyans that his opponent was “the subject of a federal criminal investigation.”

Given Christie’s impeccable (and bipartisan) track record in winning public corruption convictions and plea deals, the state’s political world initially assumed he had the goods on Menendez and that damning details, more subpoenas and eventually indictments would be forthcoming. But days and weeks passed and nothing new came to light, lending credence to Menendez’ adamant insistence that he’d done nothing wrong and that the probe stunk of partisan politics. Nor was there any further action in the months and years after the election, which Menendez went on to win by nine points. The only real surprise now is that the feds even bothered to acknowledge what just about everyone else figured out a long time ago.

Menendez can now embark on his 2012 reelection bid with absolute confidence that the matter has been put to rest. But he still has to deal with Christie, who’s accrued significant power and prominence since Menendez’s last campaign and who could end up playing just as big a role in this one.

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Before going any further, a disclaimer is probably in order: Democratic Senate candidates in New Jersey tend to look a lot more vulnerable a year before an election than they do on Election Day. Not since liberal Republican Clifford Case crushed former Congressman Paul Krebs in 1972 has the G.O.P. won a Senate race in New Jersey. So while Menendez enjoys what one independent pollster recently termed “pallid” poll numbers—an approval rating of 42 percent, with just 40 percent of voters saying he deserves reelection—there’s reason to suspect that his party label, robust coffers, and a top-of-the-ticket boost from Barack Obama will protect him next fall.

He might catch an even bigger break, though, and this is where Christie comes in. For now, the governor and the rest of the state’s G.O.P. leaders don’t seem sure about how they’re going to approach the Menendez race.

There are two basic plays for Christie. The obvious one would be to line up with his friend, a state senator from Monmouth County named Joe Kyrillos, who is interested in running. On paper, Kyrillos is an almost perfect consensus option for the state G.O.P. establishment—moderate and telegenic (as the state G.O.P. chairman early last decade, he was the party’s face when the Torricelli and McGreevey affairs became national soap operas), with access to a strong donor network and deep roots in a pocket of the state that is particularly crucial to any Republican nominee’s victory hopes. If Menendez actually is beatable next year, Kyrillos is one of the better options the Republicans have for a challenger.

But there are a couple of issues here. One is that, as noted above, winnable Senate races generally end up being mirages for New Jersey Republicans. For all of his apparent strengths, Kyrillos might still lose badly, even if he runs a strong campaign.

The bigger issue, though, is that the very qualities that make Kyrillos an attractive statewide prospect for the G.O.P. also arouse the party base’s suspicions. The Tea Party movement may not be as visible as it once was, but Republican voters seem to be just as gripped by the Tea Party mindset—rigid insistence on ideological purity—as ever. That’s why around 75 percent of Republicans nationally are still resisting Mitt Romney, and why if Romney does win the nomination it will only be after committing himself to a deeply conservative, Tea Party-friendly agenda.

Tea Party fervor has shown itself to be a mixed blessing for the G.O.P. On the plus side, it has reenergized a party base that was moribund by the end of the Bush years, helping G.O.P. candidates up and down the ballot in last year’s midterms and creating at least the theoretical prospect of an “enthusiasm gap” that might help the Republicans in next year’s presidential race. But it also cost the party several winnable races last fall, with purity-insistent primary voters forcing unelectable nominees on the G.O.P., and it has intimidated even mainstream figures like Romney into adopting a posture that could turn off swing voters next year.

New Jersey had its own brush with the Tea Party in 2010, when “Anna’s Army” mobilized to lift Anna Little, a lightly funded and relatively unknown small-town mayor, to a startling primary victory for a congressional seat centered in Monmouth County. But Little couldn’t repeat the feat in the fall, losing to Democratic incumbent Frank Pallone by 11 points.

Actually, you might say that the state’s history with the Tea Party goes back much farther, all the way to 1978, when national movement conservatives launched a similar (though unnamed) intraparty purity crusade and used New Jersey to announce their arrival. Their hero then was 34-year-old Jeffrey Bell, who took a tiny apartment in Trenton after writing speeches for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 White House campaign and set out to challenge Case, who was then finishing his fourth term in the Senate, in the ’78 G.O.P. primary. Case never saw it coming, and when Bell won the primary, Democrats cheered: Suddenly, their nominee—“Dollar" Bill Bradley—was practically a shoo-in. The final margin was 12 points, and all these years later New Jersey Republicans are still waiting for their first post-Case Senate win.

2012 will be the first Senate election in New Jersey since the birth of the Tea Party. And a candidate with obvious appeal to the movement is likely to run: State Senator Michael Doherty, one of the far-right “mountain men” who represent the state’s northwest corner in Trenton. Doherty is a charismatic candidate who has channeled his unyielding brand of conservatism into several upset primary victories. He thrives on playing up contrasts with establishment Republicans like Kyrillos. Many of the factors that propelled Jeffrey Bell more than 30 years ago are in place again.

Which brings us to Christie’s dilemma: Is he really interested in throwing himself into a potentially divisive primary that could end with his candidate suffering a defeat, and with his party’s base resenting his efforts to push a “RINO” candidate on them? Add in the fact that a U.S. Senate seat doesn’t really matter to Christie from the standpoint of his day-to-day gubernatorial duties (it’s state Senate and Assembly seats he’s more worried about) and it suggests another possible play: Convince his friend Kyrillos to wait two more years, when Frank Lautenberg will presumably be retiring and Tea Party fervor may be subsiding, and let the base have a “pure” conservative to run against Menendez.

It would save Christie political capital and spare him unnecessary trouble with Tea Partiers, not to mention the risk of being closely associated with an embarrassing defeat. Of course, it would probably ensure Menendez’s reelection too, but that would hardly affect Christie’s Trenton agenda. And, come to think of it, it might also be a nice gesture on Christie’s part. You know, to make up for that five-year investigation that just ended.