One of an occasional series
The same Democratic leaders who have long hoped to regain control of Congress by blasting a Republican “culture of corruption” are in danger of losing their shot at the Senate because of accusations of corruption against Sen. Robert Menendez.
What was expected to be an easy win for Democrats has become one of the nation’s most hotly contested Senate races.
Mr. Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, has been plagued by news reports that he’s under federal investigation for a long-standing rental deal with a nonprofit group that received millions in federal funding while he was a House member.
His Republican opponent, Tom Kean Jr., has hammered the Democratic incumbent in negative ads. And the criticism increased last month after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a taped conversation in which a Menendez ally told a government contractor that he would have “protection” if he hired a doctor with ties to Mr. Menendez.
Democrats say they’re not surprised by the Republican focus on accusations of corruption but say Mr. Menendez will win anyway by linking Mr. Kean to President Bush. Polls show that Mr. Bush is unpopular in this liberal state, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.
“We are confident Bob Menendez is going to be elected,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Tom Kean is a George Bush clone.”
The lesser evil
Political observers say the outcome depends on whether voters here get angrier about Mr. Bush and the Iraq war or about state corruption.
“Is this going to be a national referendum or is it going to be a statewide referendum on state corruption?” said New Jersey Republican political consultant Mark Campbell. “If this is national, Menendez wins; if this is a statewide election on the need for reform … Tom Kean Jr. wins.”
“People deserve to know if their senator is the only senator under federal criminal investigation,” Mr. Kean said as he took a break Oct. 8 from shaking hands with the tailgating crowd at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
A Quinnipiac University poll taken Oct. 4 to 10 found 49 percent of likely voters support Mr. Menendez and 45 percent back Mr. Kean. It also found that 57 percent of voters feel the ethics questions about Mr. Menendez are serious.
One of Mr. Kean’s latest ads plays part of the 1999 taped conversation in which Menendez adviser Donald Scarinci asks a contractor — acting as an FBI informant — to rehire a doctor as a “favor” to Mr. Menendez. The ad says kickback schemes and federal probes are “what you get with Bob Menendez.”
In another ad, Mr. Kean promises to free New Jersey from the “clutch of corruption.” And yesterday, the 38-year-old state senator cited a press report that Mr. Menendez tried to help a convicted felon transfer to a prison closer to his family.
Mr. Menendez, 52, was appointed in January to fill the Senate seat vacated when Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine was elected governor.