Friday, September 29, 2006

A switch, just in time?

With ethical questions slowing Bob Menendez's campaign down slightly, there is talk -- maybe rumor is the more appropriate word -- that the Democrats will pull another late election switch, like the one in the 2002 Senate race that ensured the seat now held by Senator Lautenberg remained in left column.

You remember what we're talking about, right? Less than 6 weeks before the election, down in the polls and facing some harsh harsh criticism from every direction, Bob Toricelli was convinced by the Democrat party elders (who, interestingly, included the ethically-challenged former Governor Jim McGreevey and Menendez himself) to leave the race. The Democrats then replaced Toricelli on the ballot with Senator Lautenberg.

Anyway, there is some talk (rumor) that if things don't look up for Menendez, he too will have a sit-down with the party elders and be told to drop out. To a degree its a likely scenario, given that the Democrats are likely going to pick up several seats in the Senate this November. If they cannot hold New Jersey, it may cost them control of the upper house. Imagine if the GOP controls the Senate 51-49 (or even 50-50) and Tom Kean Jr. is the junior senator from New Jersey.

The differences between the 2002 Toricelli-Lautenberg switch and a potential 2006 Menendez-Codey switch (yeah, former Governor Richard Codey's name is being thrown around as the replacement candidate) are significant and, we think, weigh against any sort of switch. First, it is later in the election cycle now than when Toricelli dropped out in 2002. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court allowed the 2002 switch about 5 weeks before election day, the court will be forced to impose some sort of limit so that the election can be conducted in an orderly fashion. We think once the first week in October rolls around, the potential to successfully pull off a switch will be gone. Second, Menendez was hand-picked for this seat, and this election, by Governor Corzine. To get Menendez out, Corzine is going to have to admit that he was wrong and that he picked a replacement for himself who was not up to the task and lacks the ethics to represent the state in Washington. Coming close on the heals of Menendez-backed Zulima Farber's exit from the Attorney General's office, this may not be something he wants to admit, especially with his own poll ratings pretty low. He may be more comfortable with Menendez just losing the election. Third, and similar, is that Corzine (1) won't want to piss off the Hispanic community by ousting Menendez right after Farber and (2) may need Bob the Boss's help to win his own re-election in 2009. Menendez is powerful and can bring a lot of Hudson County votes to whomever he chooses to endorse. Corzine may not want to chance that by asking him to step aside. Finally, will the New Jersey electorate really reward the Democrats with a win when they have pulled the same switching game to rid themselves of an ethically-challenged candidate in the last minutes of an election? We think to most fair-minded independent voters, of which there may just be enough in New Jersey to turn it an ever-so-slight-light-shade-of-red, would see this game for what it is and send a message to the Democrats that they need to do their candidate vetting early on and that switching candidates at the end is not a viable alternative any time they choose.

We may be wrong. Maybe they will do the switch if Menendez's troubles continue over the next week. But since he is close in the polls, this is blue state and he's a political boss, we think a switch is unlikely.

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