TRENTON — South 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."

Excerpts of remarks delivered by Curtis Bashaw after winning the nomination

I believe in New Jersey, I believe in its people, and I believe in freedom. And that’s why I believe it’s time for change.

It’s time for a political outsider who can deliver results. We can’t keep sending the same old politicians to Washington and expect the same unacceptable results.

And New Jersey families deserve better than this one-party Democratic monopoly that has represented them for far too long in Washington DC.

So tonight, is the start of real change. Because our state is at a crossroads.

We can continue down the same old road, with the same entrenched D.C. politicians like Andy Kim and Bob Menendez, or we can go down a different path.

Oh, and in case you didn’t hear, I’m running not against not one, but two machine Democrats this November.

People will tell you that New Jersey is a blue state and that it’s a presidential year, and that it’s impossible for a Republican to win. But we reject that. We tell them NO!

Do you know what Muhammed Ali, my one-time New Jersey neighbor, said about the word impossible?

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small people who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.

We will fight for this senate seat and take it back starting with each and every one of you.

Because our issues are New Jersey’s issues.

All New Jersey families care about the economy. We all care about better jobs. And we all want the chance at the American dream. We all deserve to be safe in our neighborhoods, on our boardwalks and in our schools. ALL of our families deserve to make the decisions in our homes, and not the government.

Andy Kim is no moderate. He’s a Far-left D.C. insider who voted against the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.

He also voted against a bill called the “no pay day for hostage takers act” – a bill to keep us safe from known terrorists entering our country. He was only one of 34 members of Congress who voted against that bill.

Andy Kim cares more about standing with the ultra-left members of the Congressional Squad in support of Iranian terrorists than keeping New Jersey families safe. Andy Kim does NOT represent our New Jersey values.

So we’re going to let New Jersey voters know what they’re getting with Andy Kim. We are not going to let him tell us what our “fair share” of taxes should be – demeaning hard working small-business owners who are the backbone of our economy. He’s never signed the front side of a paycheck, he’s never created one single job…he’s been a Democrat political insider who’s failed to deliver anything for New Jersey families but an extreme agenda. He doesn’t get a promotion to the US Senate.

To my Democratic friends and neighbors, tt is time to stand up and be counted. Our state’s Democratic elected officials have taken you for granted for 5 decades in this state. And what have you gotten in return? Higher taxes. Unchecked illegal immigration. More power in government, less power for people.

Education in the hands of bureaucrats instead of parents. Inflation. Crime. All with no accountability. It is time for Democrats to join with independents and Republicans to demand change. We can make things here again and we can bring real jobs back to New Jersey. We can feel safe and secure in our communities and homes and build a life for our children and grandchildren right here in New jersey.

I know people will try to put me in a box – demagogue me because I am a Republican. They’ll try to make me look like some kind of D.C. stereotype.

Good luck trying to label me. I am Curtis Bashaw. A life-long Republican. I am gay. I have been with my husband for 20 years. I am a small business person. I am for freedom and domestic tranquility in our homes. I am pro-choice. I am pro-parent. I support law enforcement. I support Israel. I support Ukraine but know that America needs to be strong at home to be able to help others and that means securing our border.

I am an entrepreneur who has helped thousands of employees feed their families and pay for their kids’ college tuition. I believe in legal immigration. I want us to make more stuff right here at home. I believe that the government that governs least governs best. That we should trust our citizens. And that we are one Nation, Under God, with liberty and justice for all.

The D.C. establishment hasn’t seen anyone like me.

Andy Kim
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)

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.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who is accused of taking bribes of cash, gold bars and a luxury car in exchange for favors performed for several New Jersey businessmen, arrives at Federal Court, in New York, Monday, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who is accused of taking bribes of cash, gold bars and a luxury car in exchange for favors performed for several New Jersey businessmen, arrives at Federal Court, in New York, Monday, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

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.

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