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Will Republicans Overcome Their Own Incompetence in N.J.?

In an example that politics is as much about tapping public dissatisfaction with incumbents as it is about offering a positive agenda, some New Jersey insiders believe that Republicans have a chance to take over the state Senate this November. [IMGCAP(1)]

What makes this noteworthy, if not remarkable, is that their optimism comes despite the fact that the state GOP continues to appear divided and inept.

New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in the past 30 years, and the Garden State was tied (with Maryland) as George W. Bush’s sixth-worst-performing state in 2000. Bush drew just 40.3 percent in Jersey in 2000.

“New Jersey has become a blue state. The anti-tax suburbanites [of the late 1970s and early 1980s] have moved on to other issues, and George W. Bush doesn’t go over in this state on cultural grounds,” says Steve Salmore, a long-time Republican strategist and research professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

After a big 1993 victory that ousted Jim Florio (D) as governor and swept Republicans to a landslide victory in both houses of the state Legislature, the GOP grip on New Jersey loosened considerably in 1997. In 2001, Democrats elected a governor in a rout and, with help from favorable redistricting, took over the lower chamber (44-36) and gained a 20-20 tie with the GOP in the state Senate.

But now, suddenly, the odds of a Republican state Senate victory in the fall have improved. Instead of the Republican slide continuing, one savvy New Jersey Democrat believes there is a 25 percent chance of his party facing an electoral Waterloo in this fall’s state Senate elections. A Democratic loss in the three- or even four-seat range could be possible.

It’s not really a matter of the Republicans having done something to improve their standing in the state. Instead, it’s the old “I’m unhappy with the incumbent so anything else looks pretty good” routine.

But while New Jersey Republicans have reasons for optimism, the party continues to have profound problems that could short-circuit any recovery at the polls.

The state GOP remains divided ideologically between conservatives and moderates, and former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, a conservative who drew just 42 percent of the vote in the 2001 governor’s race, appears to be the clear early favorite to carry his party’s torch again in 2005.

In the near term, the party’s bigger problem may be that its leader in the state Senate, Senate Co-president John Bennett, has been hammered in the press for alleged ethics improprieties.

Bennett, a moderate, has been criticized for his financial arrangements with several towns, which pay him a salary but which also pay large fees to law firms where he has been a partner. He also receives a salary as a member of the state Senate.

Critics, including some within his own party, haven’t charged him with doing anything illegal, but they have raised questions about the appearance of his activities. While Bennett has complained that much of the research that uncovered this information was conducted by Democrats, he has not denied the facts. Instead, he has apologized, paid back one town for double-billing and complained about Democratic efforts to destroy him.

Talk about a tough primary challenge to Bennett has faded, but Democrats are planning to contest his re-election strongly.

Bennett’s problems have made it all the more difficult for the Republicans to settle on a unified strategy against Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) over the next two years. The governor’s job approval numbers are terrible — a late-March Quinnipiac University survey found his job approval at 38 percent, while 44 percent disapproved — but he has remained firmly opposed to tax hikes, and that has inoculated him from the GOP’s traditional line of attack.

In fact, Republican state Senators apparently have concluded that they are on their own this year, and they seem to be turning to more of a “bringing home the bacon” approach as they position themselves for re-election this year.

“The Republican Party has no statewide message, and that’s what they would need to take advantage of McGreevey’s weakness,” argues Salmore.

“The Republicans are badly divided. They don’t trust each other, and they just don’t have any idea how to be in opposition,” adds Nicholas Acocella, editor and publisher of Politifax, an electronic newsletter on New Jersey politics.

Schundler has steered clear of the Bennett controversy, and he may believe that he would only be hurt by stirring up a hornet’s nest among his fellow Republicans. While the party’s 2001 nominee for governor continues to be active politically and on policy matters, he has not led a Republican charge against McGreevey.

McGreevey’s sinking poll numbers obviously alter the partisan political landscape in the Garden State, giving the Republicans a chance to make gains. But the party’s fundamental problems, magnified by the Democrats’ financial advantage and by the weak state Republican Party’s apparatus, means that the GOP could still swipe defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rothenberg Political Report