Robert Menendez might be the most vulnerable Democratic Senator up for reelection next year that no one's talking about. PPP's newest New Jersey poll finds him with an approval rating mired in the 30s and leading by only 5 points over one of his prospective 2012 opponents.
Just 37% of voters in the state approve of the job Menendez is doing to 35% who disapprove. He has awful numbers with independents, only 24% of whom approve of him to 40% who think he's doing a poor job. And Republicans (63% disapproval) are more convinced that he's doing a bad job than Democrats are (60% approval) that his performance has been good.
Of course the big challenge for Republicans is finding a candidate that can actually capitalize on Menendez's weakness and that looks like it might be a difficult task. Four of the people whose names have been bandied about as candidates- Mike Doherty, Kim Guadagno, Woody Johnson, and Joseph Kyrillos- would all trail Menendez by double digits in spite of his middling approval numbers. It would be a 13 point lead over Doherty (48-35), a 14 point advantage over Guadagno (48-34), an 18 point one over Johnson (48-30), and a 19 point spread over Kyrillos (48-29).
That quartet of Republicans all has two things in common. They're obscure, with all of them having a name recognition that falls into the 24-35% range. And they're not well liked by the few voters who do offer an opinion of them, with each having at least 9% more voters who rate them unfavorably than positively.
There does look to be one potential candidate who could really make the race competitive and that's the GOP's nominee from 2006, Tom Kean Jr. He's decently popular, with 32% of voters giving him good marks to 27% with a negative opinion. More importantly he's at 35-22 with the independent voters who any Republican needs to win by a wide margin in order to be successful in New Jersey.
Kean holds Menendez to a 44-39 advantage. He benefits from a 49-30 lead with independents, but he takes only 8% of the Democratic vote. He would likely need more crossover support than that to pull out a win. Still he's within striking range and would clearly be the Republicans' best hope for winning this race.
Menendez's vulnerability hasn't received much attention and if Republicans don't get a strong candidate into the race it probably never will. But his lead over Kean is a lot smaller than the advantages folks like Bill Nelson in Florida and Sherrod Brown in Ohio have posted over all of their prospective opponents and much has been written about their situations.
Of course there's one big difference between Menendez's situation and theirs- the GOP has actually won recent Senate races in Florida and Ohio while New Jersey has proven to be an endless tease for the Republican Party. The reaction to Menendez from voters in the state may be a 'meh' but in a Presidential year a Democratic Senator would probably have to be deeply unpopular to lose reelection- and he doesn't fall into that category.
Full results here