||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Fierce Democratic Senate primaries expected in New Jersey and Rhode Island
Well-known names of Whitman and Chafee expected to gain GOP nods in those states
By Stuart Rothenberg
June 22, 1999
Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EDT (1506 GMT)
WASHINGTON (June 22) -- The Garden State isn't likely to have a political garden party this year as both parties hustle to line up their strongest possible candidates to fight for retiring senator Frank Lautenberg's seat.
Most Republicans are waiting for what they now believe to be the inevitable candidacy of Gov. Christie Whitman (R), who cannot run for re-election in 2001. Whitman could well face a conservative primary opponent, but her money and strength in the state GOP make her an overwhelming favorite to win her party's Senate nomination.
The Democrats, however, face a potentially divisive fight for their party's nomination now that wealthy businessman Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman-Sachs, has entered the Democratic race. Corzine is widely viewed as the favorite of New Jersey Democrats who oppose the candidacy of former Gov. Jim Florio.
Florio, who comes from "downstate" and has won endorsements from a number of South Jersey Democratic county parties, was defeated by Whitman in the 1993 gubernatorial race, and some Democrats from North Jersey are concerned that a Florio candidacy could hurt Democratic candidates across the state.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D) has also formed an exploratory committee to test the waters for a possible Senate run, and former state party chairman Tom Byrne and former congressman Herb Klein are among a number of other Democrats still said to be considering the race. Former prosecutor Michael Murphy, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1997, recently announced that he would not seek his party's Senate nomination.
Florio is clearly better known than any of the other Democratic contenders, which certainly accounts for his advantage in the primary. But, even among Democrats, Florio carries some heavy political baggage -- including a big tax increase that not only cost him his re-election but battered the Democrats in the state Legislature.
Polling consistently shows Whitman leading any of the Democrats, and an early June Quinnipiac College poll shows her with a 50 percent to 38 percent advantage over Florio.
But Democrats point out that Whitman's two gubernatorial victories - one over Florio and her re-election win over state Sen. Jim McGreevey - were extremely narrow, and they doubt her early advantage will hold up.
Some conservatives won't support the governor because of her more liberal views on some "moral issues," but Whitman should benefit from a Democratic primary race that will drain resources from the party and divide the Democrats. In the end, that may turn out to be the little edge that the governor needs to win this seat for the Republicans.
Rhode Island Senate
If there is one region of the country where the Democrats have the advantage and the Republicans are on the defensive it's New England. And that's why Democrats are already counting the open Rhode Island Senate seat as a takeover.
But the GOP hopes that a well-known family name -- Chafee -- the same name of retiring Sen. John Chafee (R), will help them retain a Senate seat that they've held since 1976. That's because the senator's son, Lincoln Chafee, has already announced that he'll seek the GOP Senate nomination. The younger Chafee, much like his father, is a liberal Republican.
While it's uncertain whether Chafee will face a primary opponent, it's all-but-certain that the Democrats will have a fight for their nomination. So far, Rep. Bob Weygand and former lieutenant governor Richard Licht are in the Democratic race, but other Democratic names, including '98 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Myrth York, are still mentioned.
Weygand, who served in the state House before being elected lieutenant governor and then to Congress, represents the western part of the state, including Warwick, Cranston, and the western part of the city of Providence.
Licht, whose uncle served two terms as governor, lost a Senate bid against John Chafee in 1988. He is now managing partner for a Providence law firm.
A mid-June Brown University poll shows Weygand leading Linc Chafee, but the Warwick mayor leading Licht.
While Rhode Island has a Republican governor (Lincoln Almond), the state's Democratic bent -- John Chafee is the only Republican to win a Senate race in the state since the end of World War II -- makes it a top Democratic target. And that guarantees a fierce Democratic primary.