Published in the New York Times, Sunday, September 17, 2006
New Jersey Is as Democratic as It Gets.
For One Democrat, That’s a Problem.
By PETER APPLEBOME
IT’S possible, but not easy, to find a more dismal way to spend a morning than slogging through Newark in a downpour to witness the guilty plea of yet another disgraced New Jersey politician. Friday it was John A. Lynch Jr., the former State Senate president and Democratic power broker, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges that could lead to a prison term of as much as 41 months.
But bit by bit, a far drearier and not entirely unrelated picture, at once far-fetched and somehow perversely credible, is beginning to take form in the fevered brains of Democrats in Washington.
It goes like this: Riding a tide of anger against the war in Iraq, they manage to take away six Republican Senate seats in places like Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio to take back the Senate. And then, oops, they find they’ve lost an unlosable seat in New Jersey to render the whole thing moot.
“Believe me, there are Democrats who are having that nightmare already,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, with the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter in Washington. “And if it happens, there will be people leaping from tall buildings. What’s staggering to us is it’s still a viable option for a Republican to win this year in a blue state like New Jersey. I promise you I never thought I’d be talking about New Jersey after Labor Day.”
In fact, the Cook Report, like all the major political newsletters, is now calling the race between State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., the Republican, and Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat, a toss-up. And, whether or not control of the Senate ends up hinging on the answer, it’s clear that this is yet another toxic soufflé of New Jersey politics that will revolve around this question: Who seems scarier — the Republicans in Washington or the Democrats in New Jersey?
This, of course, was not supposed to be the story line in a year when the Democrats are poised to make major gains, even if winning the House still remains a challenge and taking back the Senate a major long shot. But the longer that polls show the New Jersey race in a dead heat, the more people wonder just what script gets written in the end.
The betting for most is still that things eventually revert to form. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case 34 years ago. Polls show the Iraq war wildly unpopular in New Jersey and President Bush getting a favorable approval rating from about a third of state voters. And in tough races, the Democrats almost always manage to turn out big enough numbers in North Jersey cities to push the sick and frail over the finish line.
“A month ago I said Menendez would win by between seven and 10 points, and I’m getting teased about it,” said David Rebovich, director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I still think a Democrat has to be favored, but we’re looking at a much tighter race.”
And somewhere in the reptile brain of voters, where gut rules, there are plenty of reasons to hedge one’s bets. Many voters may still not know that the Kean who is running is not the former governor but his 38-year-old son. And they might not care. In America, where nothing beats a good brand, we elect Kennedys and Bushes and Cuomos and Keans, and there’s always room for a fresh product line.
Voters might not approve of President Bush or his war, but as Mr. Lynch’s plea yesterday shows, New Jersey Democrats never run out of reasons to give voters pause. Maybe you could dream up a worse election-season front page for New Jersey Democrats than Friday’s Star-Ledger, but it wouldn’t be easy. Splashed across the top was the Lynch story. Dominating the rest of the page was another headlined “McGreevey ‘In Love’ From the First Kiss.”
And for all the Democrats’ advantage in money and base, this race remains full of questions. With almost no really competitive races for Democratic congressmen, can they guarantee the urban turnout they need? In a state where a Hispanic candidate has never been elected statewide, what role will Mr. Menendez’s ethnicity have both on white suburban voters and on black urban ones?
And if ethics is a major issue and an aggressive Republican United States attorney keeps it that way, can Mr. Menendez convince voters he’s clean and the election is about Iraq and control of the Senate, not Hudson County and New Jersey politics?
So we’ll see what race wins out. If it’s about Washington, Mr. Menendez almost surely wins. If it’s about New Jersey, the Democrats have reason to be nervous.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.