New Jersey Senate: Most Likely Democratic Loss in ’06?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 11, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

I recently received an e-mail from a friend who also happens to be a very savvy observer of New Jersey politics and a veteran of Democratic Party wars. His point was both clear and concise: I was wrong in a recent column to identify the Garden State Senate race as the GOP’s best chance to pick up a Democratic Senate seat.

That got me thinking that readers probably deserve a more detailed explanation of why I believe Republicans have a better chance in New Jersey than in Minnesota or Maryland or Washington — states probably cited more often than the Garden State as potential Republican takeovers.

First, let’s be clear about what I’m arguing. I regard it as more likely that Republicans will fail to pick up a single Democratic Senate seat in November than that they will pick up any at all. For my money, they are underdogs in all of their potential takeover races.

So I’m not arguing right now that Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. — who will win his party’s Senate nomination in the June primary — will defeat Sen. Bob Menendez (D) in November. I do believe, however, that Kean has a chance to win that contest.

Given the landscape this year, any Republican Senate candidate seeking to pick up a Democratic seat will need “special circumstances” to do so.

The president’s weak job approval ratings and the public’s perception that the country is headed down the wrong track combine to guarantee that GOP turnout will be depressed and that swing voters will swing toward Democrats. The president will be an albatross around the neck of GOP candidates.

That means that voters won’t be equally receptive to two candidates’ arguments. All things being equal, they will be more inclined to believe Democratic attacks. In that environment, a successful Republican will need a compelling reason — almost a unique reason — to win.

Being a “good” candidate with an agenda isn’t likely to be enough. Raising more money than your opponent won’t guarantee a victory. Painting your opponent as “too liberal” may not be enough if the entire election cycle is about reform and change.

So a successful Republican will have to have unique qualities or be in an unusual political environment that makes voters willing to consider arguments coming from a Republican. And the arguments can’t merely be about broad ideological approaches or personal accomplishments. All candidates have accomplishments.

In Washington state, Republican businessman Mike McGavick could benefit from a “special circumstance” — a belief among voters that Democrats stole the 2004 governor’s race.

In Michigan, the GOP nominee, probably Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, also could benefit from the state’s economic problems and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s poor standing with voters.

In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) could benefit from potentially very serious Democratic divisions, particularly along racial lines, and from his potential appeal to black voters.

At this point, there are no apparent “special circumstances” in either Nebraska or Minnesota beyond, of course, Nebraska’s strong Republican bent.

In Minnesota, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is an extremely aggressive candidate who has put together a good campaign. He’ll attempt to tear the hide off his likely Democratic opponent, Hennepin County District Attorney Amy Klobuchar, and if he finds ammunition that discredits her judgment and makes her unacceptable to Minnesota voters, he certainly can win.

But Klobuchar’s lack of a voting record and her law enforcement background, combined with the fact that Kennedy’s appeal is largely generic, makes me doubt that the Republican can swim against a strong Democratic current.

That leaves the best case of “special circumstances” — New Jersey, where voters’ desire for change and reform could as easily be tapped by Kean as by incumbent Menendez.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll, conducted last month, shows that neither Menendez nor Kean is well known.

Only 20 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of the Senator, while only 34 percent said they approved of his job performance. Yet, in the ballot test, 40 percent of voters picked Menendez to 34 percent for Kean.

The poll shows that state voters do feel strongly about one political figure — President Bush. His job ratings in the state, as in most parts of the country, are horrendous. A stunning 69 percent of state voters disapprove of the job the president is doing, including a stunning 78 percent of independents — a critical group in any state election. Given that environment, Kean’s showing suggests potential strength.

Another political figure who also has problems among New Jersey voters is newly inaugurated Gov. Jon Corzine (D). Corzine’s budget was not cheered by voters, and only 35 percent approve of the way he is handling his job, according to the Quinnipiac poll. He could be a lightning rod for voter anger that would otherwise be directed at the president and his party.

I’m not suggesting that Garden State voters will want to “send a message” to Corzine by voting against Menendez; only that the political environment in the state, to some extent, offsets the anti-Republican national mood. And given that Corzine appointed Menendez, the governor is something of a liability for Menendez if he remains unpopular through the fall.

Kean would be a stronger candidate if he were a little older and more experienced. He also will be outspent by Menendez, who is a strong campaigner and will aggressively counter Republican charges that he is a machine politician from Hudson County.

But Kean benefits from an unusually good political name in the state, can run as something of an outsider (from Washington, D.C., at least), benefits from the governor’s problems and can paint his appointed opponent in very unflattering ways. Those are advantages that few Republican Senate non-incumbents have.