T he yarmulkes are out in force in Sopranos country. At Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, a crowd of several hundred (chosen) people have gathered for what’s been billed as a “Senatorial Candidates Forum.” Not that the candidates—Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Tom Kean Jr.—share even a fleeting moment together on the synagogal stage. In two recent debates, Menendez and Kean have flayed each other loudly, witlessly, and endlessly: the latter calling the former a craven hack and possibly a crook; the former calling the latter a shameless liar and lapdog to George W. Bush. And so the sponsors of tonight’s event have decreed that the candidates appear sequentially—in the hope, apparently, of preserving some semblance of civility and decorum in a place of worship.
Amazingly, it kinda-sorta works. Both Menendez, a longtime congressman chosen last year by Governor Jon Corzine to fill his freshly vacant Senate seat, and Kean, a state senator and scion of one of New Jersey’s most revered political families, take the occasional shot at “my opponent.” But their tone is notably subdued. What the Temple Beth Shalom crowd gets instead of vitriol is a Democrat chanting, “I believe the country is headed in the wrong direction” and “We must change course in Iraq”—followed by a Republican desperately straining to talk about something, anything, else.
What the crowd gets, in other words, is a stark illustration of the dynamic playing out in campaigns across the country. Except for one large difference. Here, it seems, the tide isn’t surging hard in the Democrat’s direction. Here the Republican is holding his own, and the national GOP is noticing. Suddenly, faced with rapidly dimming prospects in states such as Ohio, the party is considering a major shift of money and manpower to New Jersey. Here it sees the possibility of a pickup—a potentially decisive one.
At the start of the year, raising such a possibility would have got you dismissed in political circles as either drunk or dreaming. True, there were those in Washington—not least Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—who counseled Corzine to bypass Menendez and select as his successor acting governor Richard Codey (who, with a 61 percent approval rating, was the state’s most popular Democrat). True, there were worries about ethical clouds around Menendez, whose position as boss of the notoriously dodgy Hudson County Democratic machine made him powerful and suspect in equal measure.
But for Corzine, Menendez’s long association with the machine made him more, not less, attractive. He had the perfect Democratic résumé. Up from nothing. Staunchly liberal. Latino. A prodigious fund-raiser. This was the kind of guy Corzine was supposed to pick—and so, dutifully, he picked him. Besides, how far wrong could he go? New Jersey was among the most reliably true-blue states in the country. It hadn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972, for chrissakes.
And yet all year long the Kean-Menendez race has been nip and tuck. Last week, a Rasmussen poll put Menendez ahead, 42-39, while a Zogby Interactive survey gave the edge to Kean, 47-45. (Both results were within the respective polls’ margins of error.) Schumer concedes that New Jersey is the one Democratic-held Senate seat where the party’s position is precarious. Although he adds, “We believe we have the ability on defense should [the GOP] put a lot of money into one state, particularly a blue state.”
That may be true, but the real question is why the Democrats are playing defense in New Jersey in the first place. The answer comes in three parts.
First, like a lot of allegedly deep-blue states (and supposedly bright-red ones, too), New Jersey isn’t actually as monochromatic as the Washington smart guys assume. For years, voters in the state who identify themselves as independents have outnumbered both Democrats and Republicans. And they’ve never been hesitant to elect a certain kind of Republican—the Tom Kean Sr. kind, the Christie Todd Whitman kind—to statewide office.
Which leads to the second point. As a candidate, Tom Kean Jr. has any number of glaring weaknesses. He looks like he’s about 16 and has a callow, glib affect and Bush-like smirk that make you want to slap him silly. (Asked at Temple Beth Shalom about weaning America off its dependency on foreign oil, he declares, “I can tell you that, in my personal life, I drive a hybrid car!”) But Kean is also, well, a Kean, and thus benefits by association with his father’s reputation for probity and moderation. His lineage gives him extra oomph when he talks, as he often does, about the importance of fully implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission (of which Kean Sr. was, of course, chairman). And it gives him extra credibility when he paints himself as a pro-choice, pro-environment centrist.
Kean has also been fairly unabashed about putting the requisite distance between himself and the Washington GOP—calling for the resignations of Donald Rumsfeld and Dennis Hastert, and even showing up late (whoops!) and thereby missing a visit to the state by Dick Cheney on his behalf. At the same time, he has been a proficient and profligate chucker of mud at the visage of Menendez.
Hence the third point: Menendez has proved a too-juicy target on the question of his ethics. Most damaging, in September came word that a U.S. Attorney for New Jersey had subpoenaed records from a nonprofit anti-poverty agency that Menendez had helped secure millions of dollars in federal grants—while at the same time leasing the group a building he owns for a total of $330,000. Ever since, Kean has claimed that Menendez is “under federal criminal investigation.” And while there’s no evidence that Kean’s claim is true, the incident—and others like it—fits into a broader picture of Democratic sleaze in New Jersey that’s lately been especially revolting. The corruption conviction of former State Senate president John Lynch. Pay-for-play. McGreevey. And now Menendez, fairly or not, is suffering by association.
Like a lot of allegedly deep-blue states, New Jersey isn’t as monochromatic as Washington smart guys think.
Under normal circumstances, all this would be little more than an amusing local diversion: New Jersey being New Jersey. But because of the way the Republican cookies seem to be crumbling nationally, it may prove to be of great historical moment. In order to recapture the Senate, the Democrats need to gain six seats. At the moment, they seem poised to knock off Republican incumbents in Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania; Missouri is also within reach, and so is the open seat in Tennessee previously held by Bill Frist. If Democrats were to win all those races, Republican hopes of retaining the Senate would come down to Tom Kean Jr.
Thus are the GOP forces massing along New Jersey’s borders. Last week, the party spent about $500,000 on ads to boost Kean while intensely assessing internal polls to decide whether to cross the Rubicon and start a full-on advertising blitzkrieg. If the decision is affirmative—and I’m betting it will be—expect an air war that’s more thunderous and brutal than anything New Jersey has ever seen. When the smoke clears, it’s possible that Menendez will be left standing. But if he isn’t, and if the GOP still has control of the Senate, one thing is for certain: Jon Corzine is gonna have himself some explaining to do.