||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Spotlight races of the week
By Stuart Rothenberg
January 18, 2000
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Following is a look at at two key races:
Web posted at: 6:28 p.m. EST (2328 GMT)
New Jersey 7
The retirement of New Jersey 7th District Republican Rep. Bob Franks has Democrats licking their chops. But the Republicans won't give up this seat easily, and they have a bevy of interested candidates all coming for the party's nomination.
Franks, a four-term fiscal conservative/social moderate who served in the state assembly and as GOP state party chairman, is giving up his seat to run for the United States Senate. After winning with 60% of the vote in 1994, Franks's winning percentage dropped to 55.4% in 1996 and just 52.5% in 1998. That erosion, as well as Bill Clinton's 51%-40% win in the district four years ago, confirms the 7th C.D.'s competitiveness.
The district is the fourth-wealthiest in the state, with a median family income well above the statewide average. It includes parts of four counties: Union, Somerset, Middlesex, and a tiny sliver of Essex (which accounts for less than 5% of the district's population).
Despite the Democrats' optimism, the district has a tradition of preferring moderate Republicans to Democrats. George Bush carried it against Bill Clinton in 1992, 44.5%-41.1%, and Republican Christie Whitman won it (with over 52%) against then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in the 1990 Senate race. Before Franks won an open seat in 1992, the district was represented by another moderate Republican, Matt Rinaldo.
The Republican field includes Assemblyman Joel Weingarten (of Essex County), Woodbridge GOP chairman Ken Gardner (who served on the city council), former U.S. House Commerce Committee counsel Pat Morrisey, Green Brook mayor Pat Walsh, 1998 6th C.D. GOP nominee Mike Ferguson and Tom Kean Jr.
The Republican race is not, in many ways, a typical contest.
Morrisey went to school in the district and lived just outside the district's lines when he was growing up. Kean, the son of former governor Tom Kean and a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, has a well-known New Jersey name but lacks deep roots in the district. Both will have to deflect "carpetbagging" charges, but neither is in the absurd position of Mike Ferguson, who was the GOP nominee against Frank Pallone in the neighboring 6th District two years ago and was again running against Pallone until he switched races following Franks's Senate announcement.
Weingarten has already endorsed one of Franks's Senate opponents, Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger, while Kean Jr. worked in Franks's district office. Gardner hopes to win the GOP nomination even though he was drubbed in a race for mayor in Woodbridge and will clearly not have anything close to the financial resources of other candidates.
Unlike many states, New Jersey is still a state where county political organizations have plenty of muscle. Many counties endorse primary candidates, giving them the party "line" and a huge primary boost.
While the lineup of the Republican race seems set, the Democratic field could change significantly before the mid-April filing deadline. New Jersey has a June 6th primary.
Former AT&T executive Maryanne Connelly, who drew just over 44% against Franks last time though she spent just $200,000 and was outspent by 4-to-1, is running again. Some Democrats believe that her credible showing last time, especially given her lack of funds, earned her another shot at the seat. But attorney Jeff Golkin is also in the race, and Union County administrator Mike LaPolla is expected to jump in before too long.
Many Democrats expect LaPolla to get strong support from a number of the county Democratic organizations, making him the favorite for his party's nomination. Connelly, however, insists she's in the race to stay.
This is a high priority seat for both parties. Look for a battle, with an interesting GOP primary setting the stage for November.
Rhode Island Senate
The death of Sen. John Chafee and selection of his son, Lincoln, to the vacancy changes the political calculations in the Ocean State. But Rhode Island remains very much of a concern for Republicans and the new senator Chafee is expected to face formidable opposition in November.
Lincoln Chafee was the two-term mayor of Warwick when his father died and he was appointed by Gov. Lincoln Almond (R) to fill the remainder of his father's term, which ends later this year. Chafee was already running to replace his retiring father when the late senator died.
Two Democrats have been running for their party's nomination: Cong. Bob Weygand and former lieutenant governor Richard Licht. Abortion divides the two Democrats (with Weygand pro-life and Licht pro-choice), and rumors have been circulating about Democratic attempts to get one of the hopefuls (Weygand is mentioned most often) out of the race.
At this point, however, the Democrats face a mid-September primary that could leave them divided and their nominee financially drained. But the state's Democratic base vote guarantees that the party's eventual nominee will be credible in the fall.
Chafee, who is generally quiet and unassuming, now has a chance to establish himself as a senator, crafting a record that may not look all that much different from his father's.
A recent poll put him far ahead of his Democratic opponents, but that reflects either sympathy for Chafee or some confusion between Lincoln and his late father, one of the most respected politicians in the state's history.
Insiders still expect Chafee to face a tough reelection race, but the new senator will at least have a chance to prove himself to voters.