Republican Curtis Bashaw's Nomination Fueling Gop Hope In Deeply Democratic New Jersey

FILE — Rep. Andy Kim greets supporters outside the Bergen County Democratic convention in Paramus, N.J., March 4, 2024. Democratic voters are deciding between Rep. Andy Kim, labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina and longtime grassroots organizer Lawrence Hamm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE — Rep. Andy Kim greets supporters outside the Bergen County Democratic convention in Paramus, N.J., March 4, 2024. Democratic voters are deciding between Rep. Andy Kim, labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina and longtime grassroots organizer Lawrence Hamm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Southern New Jersey developer Curtis Bashaw's Senate nomination over Donald Trump's preferred candidate in Tuesday's GOP primary and the possibility that embattled Sen. Bob Menendez's independent campaign could split Democrats have fueled fresh GOP hopes that they can put a reliably blue New Jersey Senate seat in play this fall.

It's a fight national Democrats weren't anticipating, but it's one they'll have to win if they hope to maintain control of the closely divided U.S. Senate.

Bashaw, 64, a hotel developer and political newcomer who lives with his husband in the Victorian resort town of Cape May, appears poised to shift away from the right-tilting politics of the GOP primary in a state where Republicans haven't won an election for the Senate in 52 years. He defeated Trump-endorsed Mendham Borough Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner on Tuesday and will face Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in the general election.

Kim, who has shown a knack for holding his own in the rough-and-tumble world of New Jersey politics, easily won the Democratic nomination in Tuesday's primaries. Menendez, a longtime Democrat, filed to run as an independent in the fall but is currently in New York federal court on corruption charges. He's pleaded not guilty.

Democrats can hardly afford a close — or expensive — contest in a state they had long assumed was safe.

The Republicans are hoping Bashaw is the candidate who'll break through the Democratic wall. GOP state Sen. Mike Testa backed Bashaw in the primary, citing his background as a businessman and political outsider and saying he was the only candidate who could win in November.

Bashaw has other upsides for the GOP: He poured nearly $1 million into his own campaign so far, according to Federal Election Commission records, and while he backs Trump, he drew a distinction between Trump's effort to win back the White House and his Senate campaign in New Jersey. Republicans lost ground there during Trump's one term in the White House, at one point holding just a single seat in the state's 12-district congressional delegation.

“There are different missions. We’re on the same team,” Bashaw said of his and Trump's campaigns. ”New Jerseyans want a hopeful, positive message from somebody that’s done stuff. And I think that’s why our campaign resonates. And I think that’s why Republicans have a shot, for the first time in 50 years, to take back a seat."

Kim has emerged as a formidable political power in the state's dominant party.

Returning to his home state in 2018 after serving as a national security official in the Obama administration, Kim defeated a Republican incumbent in 2018, then won again in the GOP-leaning district two years later. He was reelected in a newly drawn district in 2022.

His Senate campaign was borne out of the September indictment against Menendez, which alleged that he and his wife took gold bars and cash in exchange for helping businessmen get lucrative deals with foreign countries. The day after the indictment, Kim said he'd challenge Menendez for the Democratic primary and called for his resignation.

Kim's campaign met resistance when first lady Tammy Murphy entered the race and locked up party establishment support. That sparked a lawsuit from Kim and others aiming to topple the state's unique primary ballot, which gave preferential positioning to candidates with party boss support.

In an unforeseen turn, a federal judge sided with Kim and put a hold on the so-called county line system. Murphy left the race, saying she didn't want to engage in a savage primary fight with a fellow Democrat. In the meantime, Kim had endeared himself to progressives who had fought bitterly against the system for years.

In an interview, Kim said his experience would resonate with voters. He referred to Trump not by name, but by bringing up the former president's criminal conviction in New York and tethering him to both Menendez and Bashaw.

“I don’t think that any other Democrat in New Jersey would be able to be stronger than we are in terms of being able to step up against Republicans," Kim said. “Our message right now — standing up against corruption, standing up against broken politics — it’s going to work very strong against Senator Menendez as well as a Senate candidate that backs a convicted felon.”

It's unclear how Menendez's trial will play out, let alone how his independent bid could affect the race. Trump's position as the GOP's standard-bearer, though, could rally loyal Democrats behind Kim. The former president's time in the White House coincided with a near-total wipe out of Republicans in House seats in the race. The party has bounced back somewhat from an 11-1 Democratic advantage to 9-3, but Trump is widely viewed as holding back Republicans running for statewide office.

“Trump on the ballot is a bigger problem for Republicans than Menendez on the ballot is for Democrats,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “We’ve seen this pattern of voting in federal elections in New Jersey that has been driven by a significant anti-Trump sentiment.”

A cautionary note for Republicans can be found in knowing they have seen this movie before.

In 2018, Republicans nominated Bob Hugin, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, who spent millions trying to defeat Menendez.

Menendez was coming off his first federal corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury. Hugin attacked him over the scandal, but Menendez won by double digits.