New Jersey loves to flirt with Republicans only to break their hearts on Election Day. After the 1993 elections, the GOP held the governorship and two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Within a decade, they couldn’t win statewide no matter what the Democrats did.
Worse, the GOP has seemed to be on the brink of a comeback several times to no avail. In 2006, early polls showed Republican Tom Keane Jr. leading Democrat Bob Menendez in the race for U.S. Senate. Menendez ended up winning 53 percent to 45 percent. Two years earlier, George W. Bush was surprisingly competitive with John Kerry in several polls. New Jersey turned out to be President Bush’s best-improved state from 2000, but he still lost by seven points.
In 1996, Republican Congressman Dick Zimmer was neck-and-neck with Democrat Robert Torricelli for most of the year in his race to succeed Bill Bradley as U.S senator. When the votes were counted, Zimmer was defeated by ten points. He went on to lose a painfully close race for his old House seat in 2000. Zimmer is at it again this year, running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Should Republicans allow themselves to believe that this is a real pickup opportunity — maybe even better than their chances in Louisiana? Or should they just get ready for their hearts to be broken again?
An August Club for Growth poll found Zimmer leading Lautenberg within the margin of error, 36 percent to 35 percent. A Quinnipiac survey around the same time showed Lautenberg up 48 percent to 41 percent, with the incumbent below the crucial 50 percent threshold and Zimmer within striking distance. Republicans were also showing strength in next year’s gubernatorial race.
Some more recent polling has been less encouraging for the Zimmer campaign. Earlier this month, Farleigh Dickinson had Lautenberg up 46 percent to 35 percent. That still puts the Democrat below 50 percent but shows Zimmer lagging 11 points behind. A Marist poll (pdf) released Friday shows the same margin, but has Lautenberg at exactly 50 percent.
Dick Zimmer isn’t discouraged, pointing to his opponent’s poor re-elect numbers and his own strong showing among independents in some polls. “John Ensign will tell you,” he says of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, “Lautenberg is the senator with the worst re-elect number of any incumbent senator. This is without my having spent a dollar on TV yet.”
Zimmer doesn’t expect Lautenberg to pull away in November like the stronger Torricelli did twelve years ago. “What happened in 1996 was that the top of the ticket collapsed,” he explains. “I ran eight points ahead of Bob Dole in the polls. I finished eight points ahead of Dole. Unfortunately, Dole lost by 18 points.” But Zimmer believes that John McCain and Sarah Palin will have a very different impact on Republicans running in down-ballot races.
“I’m very comfortable being associated with McCain-Palin,” he says. “They doubled down on the reformist, anti-pork message. Sarah Palin killed the Bridge to Nowhere, Frank Lautenberg voted for it.” Even though Garden State taxpayers get back just 55 cents for every dollar they give Uncle Sam, Lautenberg is “as enthusiastic a proponent of pork as Ted Stevens and Bob Byrd,” according to Zimmer. “I don’t want to play the pork-barrel game better,” Zimmer says. “I want to shut it down.”
Zimmer is a fiscal conservative — “I was ranked one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress,” he says, citing his Taxpayer Hero status from Citizens Against Government Waste — and social moderate, who is pro-choice but supports some abortion restrictions. He is also unashamed of his hawkishness in the war on terror. “We are a state that takes national security very seriously,” he says. “That’s why we leaned Republican throughout the Cold War.”
After the New Jersey GOP completed a long search for a candidate, Zimmer beat socially conservative Joe Pennacchio and Ron Paul Republican Murray Sabrin in the primary. Lautenberg prevailed over Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews in his primary. John Weingart of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics told me this spring that Zimmer is the kind of Republican who can win in the Garden State, but the octogenarian Lautenberg will be difficult to beat unless his age and health become an issue.
“Frank Lautenberg and I agree on this,” says Zimmer. “The issue isn’t age, it’s effectiveness.” While he doesn’t mind pointing out that some polls do show concern about Lautenberg’s age — he’ll be 90 in six years — Zimmer argues, “There are members of the Senate who are advanced in age who are quite effective. Unfortunately, Frank Lautenberg isn’t one of them.” He says he doesn’t plan to raise the age issue, though he will press his opponent to debate.
The key will be to ensure high turnout in the GOP strongholds in the northwestern part of the state and to carry the battleground suburbs that “generally vote Democrat but will vote Republican if provoked.” Zimmer rattles off a few “bread and butter issues” where he thinks Lautenberg has provoked them: “He’s voted against drilling, for the $300 billion farm bill, and for the relaxed standards for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac I was one of 37 members of Congress to vote against.”
A tough indictment of the incumbent Democrat on the most pressing issues of the day. But New Jersey elected Lautenberg even though state Democrats plucked him from retirement after the legal deadline had passed to rescue the seat from Torricelli’s troubles. This race will be a battle between two numbers: New Jersey has slid to 50th place in what its taxpayers get back from the federal government since Lautenberg first went to Washington in 1982; the Garden State hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972.