Republican U.S. Senate candidate Anne Evans Estabrook’s loss for words while answering a question on gun control may have gone unnoticed a few years ago, but in an age where a video of the awkward moment can circulate quickly in political circles, it could become the silence heard across New Jersey.
“It seemed like kind of a mistake that someone running for the first time in office might make, and it was done in the right kind of context with a small group meeting, where you’re practicing your stump speech, working on your ability to articulate ideas and your policy positions,” said Dr. Joseph Marbach, a political science professor at Seton Hall.
“Unfortunately, it was videotaped,” Marbach noted.
The clip, shot last weekend by the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Murray Sabrin at a Woodbridge Republican Club candidates’ forum, shows Estabrook pausing mid-sentence to shuffle through her notes for 24 seconds before finishing her answer.
“I also support the waiting period, and I support the…. (pause)…. oh and the criminal background check,” she said.
Two years ago, a U.S. Senate candidate seeking the GOP nod to challenge Hillary Clinton in New York, faced a similar obstacle.
Jeanine Pirro, the former Westchester District Attorney, was was unable to improvise when she came across a missing passage of her speech, pausing for 32 seconds until an aide handed her the missing page. Almost immediately, New York State’s Democratic committee seized on the snafu and put out an ad tuning the silence to the Jeopardy theme song. At the end of the commercial, the words “Without a script… She is speechless” appear on the screen.
It was one of several snafus, and Pirro had some baggage that Estabrook doesn’t. But it was an inauspicious start to an already uphill campaign. Four months after her infamous announcement, Pirro dropped out of the race to run for Attorney General instead.
Although Estabrook’s gaffe took place at a much lower profile event than Pirro’s, the campaigns of rival Republicans and Democrats are already trying to get mileage out of the mix up.
“You have candidates who in each case got into the race for a variety of reasons, but neither because of a deep-seated belief in public service or a long record,” said Matt Miller, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “A candidate like that is prone to having to check the script before saying anything.”
Miller said that the footage reminded him of video of Tom Kean, Jr. ducking into an elevator during his 2006 U.S. Senate race to avoid the press’s questions about his attacks on Sen. Bob Menendez.
“It got on YouTube and it set the tone of the campaign for months. He had a hard time living that down,” said Miller.
Estabrook hasn’t seen much criticism from incumbent Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who she hopes to take on. Recently, the most pointed complaints about her campaign have come from her two Republican rivals, Murray Sabrin and Joe Pennacchio – with Sabrin as the most active attack dog over the last couple weeks. Prior to publicizing this video, he accused her of violating Federal Election Commission regulations and criticized her for donating money to a few Democrats.
“What candidates need when they become serious contenders for the highest public positions in the country is to know where they stand on the key issues affecting the American people,” said Sabrin. “And you really don’t need to have to leaf through notes to respond to some very fundamental questions about the constitution.”
Sabrin has even started a contest, promising to award $1,000 to the first five people who get Estabrook on video answering five questions about her Democratic donations, her alleged FEC violations, stem cell research, immigration and even her opinion of Sabrin.
Pennacchio, who attacked Estabrook on the FEC filings, held his tongue — sort of.
“I promised I’m not running this campaign to tell you how bad the other person is. As tempting as this is, I think it speaks for itself,” he said.
But Pennacchio added that the video does demonstrate the way a small slip up can be amplified through the power of YouTube.
“Sometimes we get uncomfortable experiences during campaigning. YouTube is out there, videos are out there. She could have maybe gotten away with it years ago. Obviously you can’t get away with it now,” he said.
Camden County Republican Chairman Rick DeMichele, who was a member of Estabrook’s exploratory committee and plans to give her the county line, said that he’s not nervous about her political acumen.
“If Murray Sabrin or someone else wants to suggest that she’s not ready to be a U.S. Senator because she’s looking through notes or loses her train of thought for a moment, that to me is so absurd,” he said. “Those types of things that can put on good flash in a 30 second sound byte don’t play in the real world.”
Estabrook campaign manager Mark Duffy said that seeing the DSCC jump in with criticism of Estabrook so early only shows that they fear her more than of any of the Republican candidates. Duffy added that the Republican challengers have stooped too low for a primary campaign.
“They talk about Ronald Reagan, but attack like James Carville. Clearly they want to take this race for the Republican nomination into the gutter, and we’re just not going to get there,” he said.
Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey project, thinks that Estabrook might be able to use the attacks to her advantage, but only if she’s willing to get out in front and face the criticism directly.
Estabrook should acknowledge that she’s not a professional politician and that she doesn’t want to give any answers that aren’t carefully thought out.
“It really all depends on how she handles it and how she comes back,” said Reed. “She admitted that she is running as a concerned citizen, so if she’s able to put this in a different light, it doesn’t necessarily hurt her.”