THE CHALLENGES OF TOM KEAN, JR.

by David P. Rebovich For several months some ranking Democrats in New Jersey have been tripping over themselves trying to convince Jon Corzine to name them as his replacement in the United States Senate if he was elected Governor. The Governor-elect will apparently make his much anticipated announcement this week, perhaps hoping to end rumors that he has trouble finding an appropriate successor. In the meantime, it seems that New Jersey’s Republicans, normally a fractious bunch, have already settled on Tom Kean, Jr., the state Senator from Union County, as their U.S. Senate candidate for 2006. GOP leaders, and other would-be candidates for the nomination, recognized that a Kean candidacy would give the party its best chance of winning a U.S. Senate seat, which it hasn’t done here since 1972. Recent polls have given the Republicans reason to be optimistic that Kean can give any of the likely Democratic nominees – Congressmen Robert Menendez, Rob Andrews, Frank Pallone and Rush Holt – a tough race. But those polls aside, Tom Kean, Jr. has some serious challenges to address in order to have a legitimate shot of beating the Democrats’ ultimate nominee, especially if that nominee is the person who Corzine’s names to fill the last year of his U.S. Senate term. Oh yes, Tom Kean, Jr. does have several positives going for him. One is name recognition, in large part because he shares his famous father’s name. Tom Kean, Sr. was arguably the best New Jersey Governor in the modern era, completed a successful stint as co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, and is regarded as an independent, honorable public servant, the kind that citizens admire and long for. For his part, Kean, Jr. has legislative experience, two years in the Assembly and two years as a state Senator. He is widely regarded as intelligent and industrious lawmaker who is willing to stand up for his party and its principles. But like his father, he is also willing to reach across the aisle to move popular policies forward. He is also known for advocating comprehensive ethics reform, economic development policies to foster jobs in manufacturing, distribution, high tech and financial services, finding ways to make health care more accessible and affordable, and for improving education. On social issues, he is generally regarded as a moderate, a prerequisite for a Republican to have a chance of winning a statewide race here. But before the State Senator can become a United States Senator, there are several matters he will need to address. The most obvious is to introduce himself to that part of the electorate that may be confusing him with his father. Some analysts believe that Kean, Jr.’s poll numbers are so high because many folks are doing just that. Don’t begrudge young Kean for trying to take advantage of the family name. But he can do this best by demonstrating that he carries on the Kean family’s proud legacy of fighting for good government and effective, efficient public policies. Then there’s the question of whether the State Senator is ready for prime time. As NJN’s Michael Aron has observed, Kean has improved his oratorical skills the last few years and been eager to initiate and engage reporters in discussions of complex policy issues. While these are important developments for a prospective U.S. Senate candidate, Kean still needs work on speaking to diverse groups of New Jerseyans about their interests and concerns. On these terms, the three presumed front-runners in the Democratic Senatorial sweepstakes – Menendez, Andrews, Pallone, and Holt – have the edge. Each is an experienced and skilled speaker and at ease in front of the camera and microphone. They all have logged countless hours talking to all sorts of folks as part of their official duties and while campaigning for themselves or for Jon Corzine. State Senator Kean is a bright fellow, educated at Dartmouth and Tufts. Those who are familiar with his career in the legislature know that he is fluent on the major policy issues confronting state government. But what is not clear yet is his knowledge of major domestic and foreign policy issues that occupy U.S. Senators. These include the complex federal budget, social security reform, health care reform and homeland security, and foreign policy issues from the War in Iraq to the pros and cons of globalization. At the very least, Kean will have some homework to do on these issues to campaign against a Democratic candidate who will likely have a strong background in domestic and foreign policy. In addition, the Republican will have to raise a ton of money to pay for what promises to be a very expensive race. But Kean’s biggest challenge will be answering questions about what he thinks of the policies of Republican President George W. Bush. The President’s approval rating are at a record low nationally and even lower in New Jersey. Citizens are concerned about the war in Iraq, high energy costs, judicial nominations that may effect a woman’s right to choose, the economy, environmental policies, health care costs, and federal aid to New Jersey for education, transportation, and homeland security. Whomever carries the GOP’s banner in next year’s U.S. Senate race will have to respond to following. Are you planning to go to Washington, D.C. to help New Jersey and to represent majority opinion in the state or do you plan to support an unpopular President so that he can continue his unpopular policies? Kean better have a good answer to this tough question. His answer will have to satisfy conservative Republicans at least enough so that they show up on Election Day. He will have to show the state’s more numerous moderate Republicans that his views are mainstream and that his candidacy can’t be stopped in its tracks by some wedge issue. Then he has to figure out how to attract enough of those all important unaffiliated voters to help him overcome the advantage that Democratic candidates have in statewide races here. What issues might Kean be able to use to cause many unaffiliated voters to put aside their concerns about the President and the conservative controlled Congress so that they are willing to send yet another Republican to Washington, D.C.? Perhaps he is counting on the Democratic nominee to have personal or political baggage that can be exploited. Doug Forrester insisted that Corzine had both types of baggage in this year’s campaign and still lost. In the meantime, the Democratic Senate candidate will undoubtedly try to nationalize the race, insisting that it is all about checking President Bush and the Republicans in Congress and preventing them from doing any more harm to state, the nation, and to America’s reputation abroad. Kean needs to hope that President Bush can turn things around in Iraq and that the economy has a good run in 2006. If not, he will be spending a lot of time next fall rationalizing his support for his fellow Republicans already in Washington while recommending that some of their policies be reformed. That’s a hard way to win an election. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

THE CHALLENGES OF TOM KEAN, JR.