Notes on NJ's race for US Senator

Having been overseas for 6 weeks, and largely insulated from the daily grind of local political developments (though I admit will find weekly hits from Dakar if they check their web stats), I have somewhat of a unique perspective on the contentious race for US Senate here in NJ.

The background: as the campaign began earlier in the year, Governor Jon Corzine's hand-picked successor, former Congressman Robert Menéndez, seemed the early favorite, if only by virtue of the multi-million dollar fundraising headstart he enjoyed as the third-ranked Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, Republican strategists in DC considered Tom Kean, Jr. the great white hope for the NJ GOP, anticipating a countertrend Senate pickup.

Menéndez, hoping to expose "Junior" (as his campaign referred to their opponent), challenged the son of the popular former NJ Governor to a series of summer TV debates. This move was interpreted in different ways. Some suggested that Menéndez was worried, and that no incumbent favorite would ever seek to offer his opponent a valuable platform. Others argued that the more articulate and experienced Menéndez felt he could bury Kean in the debate, and attempt to convince NJ voters that the apple had fallen very far from the tree.

Menéndez's strategy failed. Though summertime Kean was uncomfortable on camera, expectations were already low, and Menéndez's haughty Al Gore-ish condescending attitude led to a draw in the debates.

As the summer progressed, Kean's fundraising picked up, and he managed to get some traction on ethics, propelling him to a lead in a number of polls.

Current state: Within 2 hours of my plane landing, I had already seen 3 mudslinging commercials. Laying around my parents' house was a copy of the Bergen Record, showing a great photo of Kean at a rally in Morristown surrounded by a smiling group of black kids, but with an obvious slant arguing that Kean was not the independent he claimed to be, citing his State Senate voting record.

Just a few days later, I saw a corresponding article arguing that Menéndez bucked his party regularly, and was not a far-left liberal. For the Bergen Record to weigh in so blatantly suggests that Kean had lost some credibility with the press.

To recover his standing and burnish his independent credentials, Kean called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and also for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to step down in the wake of the Mark Foley circus. Predictably, however, Kean's moves angered the right-wing, including very active NJ conservative leaders like Michael Illions of GOPUSA, who has been sending emails highly critical of Kean.

Then came the most recent debate, shown this Sunday morning. What a disgrace. Both candidates should be ashamed of such childish behavior. I actually thought at one point that the moderators were going to bluntly scold the candidates and walk off stage. That's how bad it was. I find it hard to believe that any voters were moved by either candidate's performance, although I must mention that Kean's public speaking abilities have improved significantly over the course of this campaign.

Polls now show the race more reflective of national sentiment, and while Menéndez has re-taken the lead, Kean is still within the margin of error and could still pull off a victory in November. In short, New Jersey's US Senate seat is still up for grabs.