(CNSNews.com) - Many independent voters and anti-establishment Democrats seeking relief from corruption, rising property taxes and entrenched "party bosses" are lining up behind Republican Tom Kean Jr., in New Jersey where the Senate race is closer than anticipated.
The Democratic incumbent -- Sen. Robert Menendez -- was the favorite for many months, in part because the last time New Jersey had a Republican U.S. senator was in 1978. GOP Sen. Clifford Case lost his party's primary that year and New Jersey Republicans have been frozen out of the U.S. Senate ever since.
New poll results show that Kean, who is a state senator and whose father once served as a New Jersey Republican governor, has built a narrow, but steady lead over Menendez. Kean has made ethics in government a centerpiece of his campaign at a time when corruption charges have ensnared a number of high level Democrats in the Garden State.
The New Jersey Democratic Party's most recent trouble involves former state Senator John Lynch, who pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting tens of thousands of dollars from a contractor, while working to assist the same contractor in developing state parkland.
Kean has accused Menendez of further soiling the state's reputation by engaging in questionable transactions with a non-profit organization in Union City, N.J. As previously reported by Cybercast News Service, Menendez was allegedly on the receiving end of approximately $300,000 in payments from the North Hudson Community Action Corporation during his time as a U.S. congressman.
Menendez later "steered contracts and federal taxpayer dollars" to this same corporation, Kean's campaign alleges.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Menendez campaign, said the deal was "an arm's length transaction approved by the (U.S.) House Ethics Committee." He accused Kean of having "taken a page out of Karl Rove's smear campaign playbook in an attempt to distract the public's attention from his own support for George Bush's war in Iraq, and the rest of his failed agenda."
The Kean campaign counters by saying that Menendez should have received written approval from the Ethics Committee. Federal investigators are now probing the relationship between Menendez and the non-profit group.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University-Gannett New Jersey Poll, said the corruption allegations against Lynch hurt Menendez because they remind voters of the other recent scandals involving the Democratic Party.
The re-emergence of former Democratic Gov. James McGreevey, who has written a book about his homosexual life and the affair he had with a male employee while serving as governor, is yet another reminder of the party hierarchy's problems in Trenton.
"The fact that Democrats are not solidly behind Menendez is a sign of disgruntlement," Murray told Cybercast News Service. "A lot of internal state issues make this a bad time to be a Democrat in New Jersey."
The latest Monmouth University poll released Sunday showed Kean with a narrow lead over Menendez. Among registered voters Kean led 44 to 36 percent.
The same poll also showed that Kean led among independents by 43 to 29 percent. The lead among independents bodes well for the Kean campaign, Murray said, because they are the determining factor in every statewide election.
According to the New Jersey Division of Elections, a department within the New Jersey attorney general's office, the majority of voters in the state are unaffiliated.
There is another statistic Murray finds significant. "Among those who approve of (Democratic) Governor Corzine, Menendez only has a slight advantage, whereas Kean has an overwhelming advantage among those who do not approve of the governor's performance," he said.
Among voters who disapprove of how Corzine - himself a former U.S. senator -- is handling his current job, Kean led in the Monmouth University poll 55 to 24 percent.
The same survey showed Kean drawing support from 16 percent of registered Democrats, which Murray said is important when it is combined with the number of independents supporting Kean.
Rafael Fajardo, who serves as president of the Elizabeth, N.J., city school board is one such Democrat. He pledged his support for Kean during a recent campaign event held at the Portuguese-American Club. Fajardo spoke on behalf of "Democrats for Change," which he said grew out of the "Democrats for Reagan" push in the 1980s.
"We are tired of hearing how corrupt New Jersey is, and we feel Kean is the type of person who can help clean it up," Fajardo told Cybercast News Service.
Fajardo also said there were thousands of Democrats in Elizabeth with an independent streak who are open to ideas from the other party. In 1980 these same Democrats supported Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in his race against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. A year later, those Democrats helped Tom Kean Sr., win the New Jersey governor's race in 1981.
Political scientists who spoke with Cybercast News Service said a Kean victory would ensure continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate. They also pointed to a number of unique dynamics at work in New Jersey.
In a state where President Bush and the war in Iraq remain unpopular Kean has distanced himself from the administration by calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"They've gotten the green light from the White House on this," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for politics.
Dr. David Rebovich is the managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. He told Cybercast News Service that the absence of any competitive congressional races could translate into low turnout in urban areas.
"Democrats here are concerned about low turnout in Camden and Newark," he said. "Looking at past elections we find in uncompetitive races the winner gets 30,000 fewer voters than winners in competitive races and Menendez needs heavy turnout in urban areas this year to keep the Democratic advantage."
See Related Story:
New Jersey Senator Facing Ethics and Financial Probes (Sept. 11, 2006)
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