Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Jersey U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 7, 2006
61 Days Until Election Day

New Jersey U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

Politics in New Jersey can be as cutthroat and heated as that in any state and this year’s U.S. Senate contest will be among the most closely watched in America. Democrats are hoping that the state’s recent political history and national factors will be enough to save a Senate seat they have controlled for decades, that suddenly looks to be in very much danger, and one that Democrats simply must keep in order to have any chance of gaining control of the Senate.

Before the summer of 2004, it looked like wealthy liberal freshman Senator Jon Corzine was a solid favorite for reelection, with the ability to spend whatever it took to win a second term. Then, the political landscape of the Garden State was thrown for a loop when Governor Jim McGreevey admitted that he had been having a relationship with a man not his wife, also involving allegations of professional misconduct. So, McGreevey announced that he was a “Gay American”, and would be resigning from office. That event elevated another Democrat to become Governor, but Senator Corzine made it clear that he had his eye on the job as well, eventually forcing the Acting Governor to abandon an attempt to win a four year term. In the off year election in 2005, Corzine won a bitterly contested Gubernatorial race causing his Senate seat to become vacant.

As Governor-Elect, it was up to Corzine to pick his own replacement and several Democrats, most of them U.S. House members, expressed interest in being nominated, and voiced plans to run for the office in the 2006 election whether they were picked or not. Some speculated that Corzine would agree to pick a caretaker Senator, who would not have interest in running in 2006, so the rest of the ambitious Democrats could fight it out among themselves in a primary, for the right to represent the party in a Senate race that would now be at least slightly more competitive without Corzine in the picture.

However, Corzine eventually made a selection of veteran Congressman Robert Menendez to receive the Capitol Hill promotion, making him one of the first three Hispanics elected since 2004 to serve in the U.S. Senate in some time. Before Menendez was named though, there was much speculation within the party and in the media that Menendez might have the most difficult task of any of the potential Democrat selections in winning a full term, due to his only having represented heavily Democrat urban areas, having a reputation as a political machine boss, and some allegations of ethical misconduct regarding a relationship with a former girlfriend. Menendez clearly received a break though as potential primary opponents eventually opted for party unity and chose not to run.
Republican unity was also basically present though as the GOP establishment anointed the candidacy of State Senator Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former moderate Governor, who has recently served as the Chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The younger Kean has a moderate political profile as well, which perhaps worked to his detriment, when he lost a Congressional primary in 2000, but which is likely to work in his favor as the Republican nominee in a statewide race.

Since the two major candidates emerged, this race has seen ups and downs for both candidates, with a fairly large number of voters remaining undecided. As national Republicans and the President have fallen on hard times, especially in the blue state of New Jersey, Corzine’s first year few months as Governor has also been extremely rocky, leaving him quite unpopular in the state that recently elected him Governor, as well. In many ways, the 2006 Senate contest will come down to national baggage vs. state baggage.

Polls between Menendez and Kean have seesawed for months now, with neither candidate managing to open up much of a noticeable lead. For much of the summer, conventional wisdom seemed to be that Menendez had managed to become more well known to the entire state and that the race was starting to trend in his favor. However, the two most recent polls in this race, both from Farleigh Dickinson University and Rasmussen have shown the race has perhaps swung fairly dramatically in Kean’s favor to the tune of as much as 11 points, as a 3-6 point lead for Menendez is now a 4-5 percent lead for Kean. Democrats have expressed some disbelief about those polls or that the race has seen such a shift and believe that surveys from other firms, and future editions of the two polls mentioned, will once again show Menendez with at least a slight lead.

An interesting feature in the internals of one of the recent polls is that if not for the military situation in Iraq, Kean would be out to an even bigger lead. Democrats have spent much time and money trying to tie Kean in with the White House and Congressional Republicans on matters such as Iraq and gas prices, while Kean has taken great pains to attempt to show some maverick stripes in order to differentiate himself, calling in the past few days for the resignation of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, for example. Kean has also accepted money raised for him by President Bush, but managed to find an excuse to not be able to share the stage with the President personally.

The fact that Kean is even in the game at all at this point, and maybe even winning, has to indicate that New Jersey voters have serious ethical concerns about Menendez and other Democrats in the state. With the untimely political demises of both Senator Bob Torricelli and Governor McGreevey, due to ethical misconduct, and a possible backlash against Corzine, both on performance related problems and concerns about the ethics within his Administration, one has to wonder just how much New Jersey is willing to put up with and future damage the reputation of their state, because of these political figures. Like the other three Democrats, Menendez is still dogged by the perception of shady political dealings, and like McGreevey and Corzine, Menendez has also endured a public marital split that involved infidelity with somebody with whom the politicians had professional dealings with as well as part of their official capacities. The seemingly happily married and seemingly free of corruption skeletons in the closet Kean, may be an appealing alternative to many people.

Another worrisome problem for Menendez is that voters may vote against him this year in order to send a message to Corzine, particularly after a broken campaign pledge and the raising of taxes. Back in 1990, Democrat Senator Bill Bradley, who had cruised in previous elections, was nearly defeated by a then little known Republican named Christine Todd Whitman, because of a backlash against a tax increase by then Democrat Governor Jim Florio. Other Democrats in the state went down to defeat in 1990. This year, the situation could be similar, although Menendez does not have as strong of a previous track record as Bradley, Kean is considered more formidable than Whitman was, and the current incumbent Senator, happened to actually be hand picked to hold the seat by the Governor who is currently causing him this strife.

All this being said, it would be extremely unwise to count Menendez out. He is a very dogged campaigner and a shrewd political operative who will seek to nationalize the Senate election against Kean, who would very much like it to be about New Jersey issues and corruption. In at least one debate that the candidates have already held, Menendez was regarded as perhaps getting the best of Kean in the encounter and looking more seasoned.

As many know, I am a hard-core Republican who very much wants all Republicans, to win this race, and while I think Kean has a very good shot of picking up this seat for the GOP, and just may do it, I still remain a bit skeptical about if it can actually happen. Republicans have looked at poll results in New Jersey before over the past four years with much optimism, only to be ultimately disappointed. While the GOP probably would have picked up a Senate seat in 2002, without a late switch of candidates on behalf of the Democrats, some favorable polling snapshots in both the 2004 Presidential and 2005 Gubernatorial races in the state never came to fruition as it related to making a true race of things. While Kean appears to maybe have the best chance of winning a Senate seat for the GOP, in what is sort of an open seat race, against what is only an appointed incumbent, seeing will be believing, and I am not yet willing to let go of a hunch that the political nature of the state in recent years in favor of the Democrats will be just enough to allow Menendez to hang on. I hope to be wrong though.

Kean campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 11 D, 7 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 38 D, 47 R