A SWITCHEROO IN THE SENATE CAMPAIGN’S FOCUS, NOT THE CANDIDATES

by David P. Rebovich There they were, two Republican stalwarts, speaking with the certainty that they represented majority sentiment even though their own party is in the minority. Senator Leonard Lance, the calm defender of the State Constitution, and Assembly Alex DeCroce, who knows the value of some well-timed bluster, announced their call for comprehensive ethics reform and legislation to explicitly prohibit the replacement of a candidate after the 48th day before a general election. Their purpose was clear. If the Democrats are thinking about substituting someone for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, whose candidacy took a blow recently when the U.S. Attorney subpoenaed records pertaining to an old rental agreement, they would have to do so quickly. What this new legislation would do is prevent a replay of the proverbial “switcheroo” that the Democrats pulled in 2002. Then-incumbent Senator Bob Torricelli had reportedly accepted large gifts from one David Chang and then saw his poll numbers plummet. Torricelli’s loss to Republican candidate Doug Forrester seemed inevitable, and the incumbent dropped out of the race after what everyone thought was the absolute deadline for him to be replaced. But the Democrats petitioned the State Supreme Court to receive permission to run someone – former Senator Frank Lautenberg – in his place. The Court unanimously decided in favor of the Democrats, in part because the existing regulation was vague, and Lautenberg went on to beat Forrester. Lance and DeCroce were out to bury the ghost of Torricelli, or so it seemed. Actually, this all looked like a win-win situation for New Jersey’s Republicans and their U.S. Senate candidate, Tom Kean, Jr. If Democrats in the legislature and Governor Jon Corzine support Lance’s and DeCroce’s proposal, Menendez could not be replaced after September 20th even if, let’s say, he is indicted by the U.S. Attorney. If Democrats don’t support the measure, Republicans can accuse them of wanting to perpetuate a system where last minute shenanigans are possible and campaigns can be subverted. Frankly, the Republicans also benefit by keeping the ghost of Bob Torricelli alive. Lance’s and DeCroce’s proposals do that and remind voters that Menendez is under investigation. And reminding voter’s of Menendez’s possible legal problems is a key component of Tom Kean, Jr.’s campaign strategy. At this point there is no reason to assume that Menendez will be indicted or replaced on the ticket. However, when the story broke that U.S. Attorney had subpoenaed the Senator’s rental records, there was talk in Washington, D.C. and in Trenton about what to do if Menendez were indicted or if his poll numbers tanked. To try to prevent a precipitous drop in those numbers, Menendez starting running two television ads. His camp had planned to wait until the end of September to start its ad blitz. But recent polls showed that he lags behind Kean in name recognition and is trailing his challenger by a few points. The incumbent’s handlers apparently calculated that they could not afford to let voters continue to hear about only his problems and Kean’s surprising lead in the media. So, they went on the air with ads that reintroduce Menendez as a leader who has stood up to President Bush on port security and who, as a young politician, fought corruption in Hudson County. Understandably, Menendez wants to change the focus of the campaign to a discussion of substantive policy issues and on President Bush’s problems. The incumbent knows from the polls that most New Jerseyans disagree with the White House on issues like the war in Iraq, funding for homeland security in the greater New York and Philadelphia regions, a woman’s right to chose, and stem cell research. Menendez’s campaign theme, and that of Democrats nationally, is that the unpopular President needs to be checked by Democratic majorities in Congress. On these terms any discussion of Menendez’s alleged ethical impairment are attempts by Republicans and Kean to avoid talking about GOP policy positions that most New Jerseyans don’t share. This is not to say that Menendez has taken the high road. Rather, he has blasted Kean for allegedly having his father shake down fellow board members for campaign funds; for accepting donations from Horizon Blue Cross executives after voting to protect the company from a huge tax hike; and, for following Karl Rove’s playbook of trashing the character of one’s opponent. In addition, Menendez’s team has contrasted the modest roots of their candidate, and how he worked his way up the political ladder, with Kean’s privileged background and how the Republican is relying on his family name, rather than a record of accomplishment, to try to get to the U.S. Senate. The difficulty with this approach is that New Jerseyans associate the Kean name with good times, good and ethical government, and a non-partisan approach to politics and public policy. As such, the GOP Senate candidate may well want Menendez to accuse him of being a “Kean.” That’s because Kean, Jr. wants to draw a distinction between how his father and he conduct themselves with the behavior of the ethically-impaired, ultra-partisan Democrats in New Jersey and self-serving politicians in both parties in Washington, D.C. On these terms Kean seems to be asking voters to think about not just what federal policies they want changed but which candidate they believe will work to change the way politics is conducted and will pursue the public interest. That’s a good message in today’s political environment in a state that has seen Torricelli, former Governor Jim McGreevey, former Attorney General Zulima Farber, and former Middlesex County political boss John Lynch disgraced because of ethical problems or worse. But another message that works well in this political environment is that the Bush Administration needs to be checked because its foreign and domestic policies are hurting the nation and New Jersey. As Election Day approaches, expect Menendez to hammer away at how a U.S. Senator Kean would support the President and conservative GOP congressional leaders. Also expect Kean to continue to distance himself from his party’s leaders on issues like the environment, stem cell research, funds for Homeland Security, and even the conduct of the war. And, don’t be surprised if the issue of illegal immigration becomes important in the closing days of the campaign. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “”On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides commentary on national political developments.

A SWITCHEROO IN THE SENATE CAMPAIGN’S FOCUS, NOT THE CANDIDATES