Eyes of Nation on Kean / Menendez Race

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D. All eyes in the nation are on the New Jersey race for the United States Senate between incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez and his Republican opponent Tom Kean Jr. Sure, what happens to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut is important, but what happens in New Jersey could decide the balance of power in the nation’s most prestigious club, otherwise known as the U.S. Senate. Amazingly, on paper this looks like a virtual dead heat. New Jersey is supposed to be a very “blue state” where we consistently elect Democrats to statewide office. The last Republican to win statewide was Christie Whitman. The last Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat was Clifford Case back in 1972. However, if the polls are right, Tom Kean Jr. may actually hold a slight lead over Bob Menendez. But polls can be deceiving and people often make their choice late in the game. But we still must ask why Menendez isn’t blowing Kean out at this early stage. The biggest reason is the name Tom Kean. Let’s face it, it is a great name. People love Tom Kean — senior, that is — our former governor and head of the 9/11 Commission. Tom Kean Sr. was and is a class act that both Democrats and Republicans like and respect. I know better than most because in 1985 as a member of the state legislature in a so-called marginal swing district, I lost my seat because Tom Kean Sr., a Republican leading the ticket, blew out his Democratic opponent 70 to 30 percent. I lost by two percent. Thanks, governor. And over two decades later the Tom Kean name is still golden, only enhanced by his leadership as head of the commission examining what happened on and after 9/11. My point is that a lot of people think Tom Kean Jr. is Tom Kean Sr. Others who know he is the son figure he’s got to be pretty good since the father was so great. Still others are just comfortable with the name and figure how wrong can you go with a Tom Kean? But there is another name that is impacting this race and that name is Menendez. Not a lot of people want to talk about it, but I am convinced that there is something going on here. It is something respondents will never tell pollsters, but nonetheless it is there. New Jersey has never elected anyone with a Hispanic surname before. Bob Menendez is Cuban American. It shouldn’t matter, but with some maybe it does even a little bit. Could there are some who just aren’t comfortable with electing a U.S. Senator named Menendez? It’s not “PC” to say it, but are you convinced that I’m wrong? The fact is that Bob Menendez is one of the most articulate, thoughtful and effective members of Congress. But to some, that may or may not matter, but again, they are not going to tell a pollster who calls them on the phone and asks whom they might be voting for in the upcoming election. I hope I’m wrong, but again, are you sure I’m not? There is also Iraq. According to the recent PublicMind poll, if Iraq were not an issue, Tom Kean would be leading in this race 47-36 percent over Menendez. That’s amazing. But because Iraq is a huge issue for many, Tom Kean’s lead is only 43-39 in the same poll. That’s a statistical dead heat. Tom Kean is doing all he can to distance himself from President Bush’s unpopular leadership on Iraq. This past week, Kean Jr. called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign after Menendez challenged him to do so. I’m not sure that is going to give Kean enough breathing room on the issue. He won’t criticize the president directly and he won’t say we need to get out of there by any particular date and Rumsfeld has to go? Pretty fuzzy, huh? Conversely, a couple of days ago, Bob Menendez called for a withdrawal of most American troops from Iraq within a year. He also called the war effort a “massive failure.” Menendez said this of Kean’s call for Rumsfeld resignation; “Firing him while still endorsing the same status quo policy (in Iraq) is like throwing the first mate of the Titanic overboard while standing side by side with the captain as he steers straight toward the iceberg.” Talk about an analogy that hurts. Tom Kean Jr. is going to have to respond to that. He must be clearer on his Iraq position or his great name won’t get it done. Meanwhile, Kean has been blasting Menendez implying, if not saying, that the Democrat is ethically challenged. Kean held a press conference in Union City in front of a non-profit organization housed in a location that Menendez owned for many years. The problem, says Kean, is that the non-profit organization was paying rent to landlord Menendez when then Congressmen Menendez was helping the non-profit in Washington gain important federal dollars. The implication is that Menendez used his influence as a public official to enhance himself as a landlord. Personally, I think it is weak, but then again, if Tom Kean Jr. can make himself out to be a sort of adult Boy Scout, unlike the prototypical “New Jersey politician”, it could hurt Menendez. Who knows? There are a lot of factors that will come into play over the next several weeks to decide this race. But one thing for sure is that interest in the win goes way beyond New Jersey’s borders. This one is going to be a really fascinating if not terribly nasty race. Then again, we are in the Garden State.

Eyes of Nation on Kean / Menendez Race