Lost in New Jersey

Garden State Republicans are in disarray following Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's decision three months ago to abandon the race for an open Senate seat.

Published December 8, 1999 11:00AM (EST)

When Colin Powell refused to run for president in 1996, he disappointed many Republicans, who had looked to him as their only hope to defeat Bill Clinton. Some Democrats felt the same way when Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska recently decided not to challenge Al Gore for the Democratic nomination. "Who do we turn to?" has been the oft-heard lament on both sides of the aisle.

But when it comes to hanging your fellow supporters out to dry, neither Powell nor Kerrey can hold a candle to Christie Todd Whitman.

In early September, the Republican governor of New Jersey announced that she would not seek the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Frank Lautenberg -- a seat the Democrats have held since the 1950s.

Whitman explained that mounting a campaign would be "a distraction from finishing the work New Jersey voters had asked me to complete" and that "this is all about whether I can run for the United States Senate and at the same time fulfill my duties as governor." In the end, Whitman decided that the answer was no.

Her supporters, meanwhile, were left speechless. Rumors soon spread through political and media circles about the true meaning of her decision to back out: Was she ill? Did her decision have anything to do with her husband, John Whitman? Was she making herself available to be a vice-presidential candidate, as in a Bush/Whitman ticket? There had to be an explanation for her withdrawal.

Well, it may be that she just didn't want to run. Dave Neese, the editorial page editor at the Trentonian, said that "even when ... it seemed very likely that Whitman would run, some of her closest advisors had already known for some time, just from the comments she'd make, that there was no way she would run for the Senate. But then she sets up that exploratory committee and everyone gets all excited, and suddenly she's exploring her way out of it."

Three months after Whitman's announcement, it is now clear the governor truly dreaded running in a highly contested Senate race. According to Alvin Felzenberg of the Heritage Foundation, a veteran of New Jersey politics, "she just knew it was going to be a rough race. She knew she'd be facing opponents on all sides. There's nothing to the other rumors of why she backed out."

GOP political consultant Larry Weitzner agrees: "Whitman's heart wasn't into it and the rigors of raising money and doing all that work just to run possibly against a candidate with unlimited resources" didn't seem too appealing.

True enough, New Jersey political races have never been pretty -- especially for her. Although Whitman is a two-term governor, she won both her elections by razor-thin margins -- roughly 25,000 votes each time. Editor Neese adds that "Whitman just did not look forward to a nasty bang-up Senate campaign, and after witnessing the Zimmer/Torricelli Senate race in 1996," she knew this wasn't something she wanted.

The winner of the 1996 race, Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli, admitted to the Bergen County Record that if you want to run, "you have to really want to be in the U.S. Senate, because you are going to pay a heavy price."

For Whitman, it seems, this turned out to be a price not worth paying. But there's another price of her decision: Many Republicans are angry with the governor for leaving them with no clear candidate in a race once found to be in their favor. A Quinnipiac College poll earlier this year showed Whitman leading by as much as 52 percent to 35 percent over former governor Jim Florio and leading ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine by 56 percent to 22 percent.

The list of potential GOP nominees thus far includes Rep. Bob Franks, state Sen. Bill Gormley, former Libertarian candidate for governor Murray Sabrin and Essex County executive James Treffinger. If Whitman was scared by the mere thought of raising $17 million to win the election, imagine the challenge that these candidates with lesser name recognition face.

Meanwhile, the rumors flying about Len Coleman considering a run are still just rumors. This former president of Major League Baseball's National League and African-American Republican could very well be the party's last hope.

"Lots of Republicans are irked that Whitman took as long as she did" before backing out, says Neese.

Also, according to one New Jersey congressional source, "many of the candidates for the Republican nomination are mad at her because she's created a fund-raising problem." During the existence of her exploratory committee, Whitman raised more than $2 million from generous campaign contributions. Now, though some of the money has been returned, there is a general sense that these sources are tapped out as a slew of little-known candidates scramble to raise every last dime.

"Clearly we lost our best candidate," says Weitzner, "and we would have had a better shot if Whitman was the one."

Adding to the Republicans' problems is the state's proximity to one of the hottest races in the country. The New York Senate race pitting Mayor Rudy Giuliani against Hillary Rodham Clinton may even overshadow the presidential race. If so, the election next door will hardly register a blip on the media's radar screen.

This lack of attention, lack of money (especially acute if the Democratic opponent is the self-financed multimillionaire Corzine) and lack of high-profile candidates will likely hinder chances for a Republican victory.

It isn't often that a New Jersey Senate seat is left wide open -- incumbents in the Garden State have an impressive reelection record. In fact, only two senators have been ousted while in office in about half a century. The last Republican senator to be elected in New Jersey was Clifford Case in 1972. Given the way next year's race is shaping up, you'd have to say that Case may hold that distinction well into the next millennium.

By Victorino Matus

Victorino Matus is associate editor at the Weekly Standard.

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