Dennison takes a page from Sheldon Whitehouse’s playbook

In district seven, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost two to one, Democratic state Senate candidate Rich Dennison keeps coming back to a a single theme when attacking incumbent Diane Allen: she’s a Republican.

Dennison even kicked off his campaign by trying to get Allen to sign a pledge declaring her independence from Bush, and last week made a tempting offer to reporters at a press conference, saying he’d give a million dollars to anyone who could find the word “Republican” on an Allen campaign flyer that he help up.

Dennison’s strategy is vaguely reminiscent of a recent U.S. Senate race in another densely populated blue state: Rhode Island, where in 2006 Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse beat independent-minded incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chaffee in an election widely viewed as a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Party. Despite breaking from his party on many issues, the reason most often cited for Chafee’s loss was the “R” next to his name.

Like Chaffee, Allen is a moderate Republican. She’s pro-choice, pro-civil union and pro-stem cell research, but describes herself as fiscally conservative. She was also a vocal critic of the President’s plan to privatize social security. Indeed, it would be tough to be a conservative firebrand in a district where Kerry beat Bush by 13,000 votes in 2004 and Bob Menendez beat Tom Kean, Jr. for Senate by a similar margin last year.

The comparison, of course, is far from perfect. Chafee lost a statewide race in a political climate that was toxic for all Republicans. It’s much easier to tie a senator to an unpopular president’s policies in a federal race, where the candidate’s stance on foreign policy and national issues has a much more direct impact on policy.

Whether the same principle can apply to a local election in an off year is another question. Granted, Bush’s approval rating is incredibly low in New Jersey, and few politicians on any level of government are queuing for a photo op with him. But in a district where the voters are likely to be swayed by local issues like property taxes and asset monetization, where Diane Allen seems to be popular, and when none of New Jersey’s Congressman or Senators are on the ballot, Dennison runs the risk of overusing a line of attack that would be better suited for a statewide candidate.

“I think it’s a stretch to tie a legislative candidate to the national issues, unless that person has been active in taking a position, one way or the other, that is very strong,” said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “It may work, but it also requires people to know who the alternative is, because she’s pretty well-known.”

While the local status of the election will certainly temper the anti-Bush backlash, Chafee’s credentials were more anti-Bush than Allen’s. Not only did he vote against authorizing the Iraq war – something that the majority of Senate Democrats at the time can’t even claim – but he did not back the President for re-election in 2004. While Allen has a moderate record as well, she does have the liability of having been a vocal Bush supporter during both of his elections, and having been a delegate to the two most recent Republican National Conventions.

At a press conference last week, Dennison did seek to demonstrate how he would provide an alternative to Allen, noting that she voted against the state’s needle exchange program.

Yesterday, Dennison said he still believed that voters cared about Allen’s ties to Bush. Michael Clarke, his campaign manager, pointed to a March, 2005, National Public Radio interview of Allen where she said she would be offended if someone called her a RINO (Republican in name only) and said, “I actually happen to think this President is doing a pretty good job.” The idea, he said, was that Allen espouses more traditional Republican views outside her district, while claiming to be a maverick at home.

This support for the President will get Allen in trouble with the district’s voters, Dennison said.

“I’m well aware of the concept of federalism. I just see it as a relevant thing to point out to the good people of the district, and once I do they don’t say ‘I don’t care’ or ‘it’s irrelevant.’ They say ‘that’s terrible.’ They’re pretty much outraged,” said Dennison.

“I find it extremely relevant because she calls herself an independent voice for South Jersey.”

Allen responded that Dennison “does seem to be running against George Bush.”

Today, Allen supports Giuliani for president and says she’s not as enthusiastic in her support of Bush as she used to be. Chief among her disappointments in the President is his threat to veto the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which she enthusiastically supports.

“Right now I’m very disappointed that he isn’t engaging with the American people,” said Allen. “He seems to have drawn the wagons around him, and I feel like he’s not hearing us on a lot of different issues.”

But this race will not be decided by the Iraq War or abortion, Allen said. Rather, the concern of her constituents is property taxes—an issue that Dennison attacked her on last week.

Dennison’s strategy of tying Allen to Bush could help the fledgling candidate, said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. But it won’t be easy.

“The argument’s a stretch and a difficult one to make in the state political environment. It may be his best shot, but it just strikes me as being an uphill battle,” said Rebovich.

Dennison takes a page from Sheldon Whitehouse’s playbook