The Senate: N.J. Incumbent Holds Slight Lead, Other Races Tight

The Senate

By Jennifer Siegel

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.
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As one of the country’s most closely watched Senate races — and the only one involving an endangered Democratic incumbent — comes down to the wire in the Garden State, recent polling shows Democratic Senator Bob Menendez with a slight lead over political scion and state lawmaker Tom Kean Jr.

Democrats need to pick up six seats to take the Senate; a Kean victory would give the Republicans some breathing room and force the Democrats to win all seven races in which they are seen as having a decent chance of capturing a GOP-held seat.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Menendez built a strong pro-Israel record, and pro-Israel activists have donated and raised considerable money for his campaign. At the same time, New Jersey has a relatively large Orthodox Jewish community that polls suggest has become increasingly Republican. In between attempts to paint each other as corrupt, both candidates have courted Jewish residents actively.

Race Tightens in Maryland

In Maryland, a Jewish Democrat, longtime Rep. Ben Cardin, is competing against Republican Lt. Governor Michael Steele for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes. Although several polls have shown Cardin holding a double-digit lead, the race is tightening in the homestretch and recently has been graded as a toss-up by nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook. Steele, an African American, is expected to draw black voters who otherwise would vote Democratic. In recent days he has been endorsed by some of the state’s black Democratic politicians, who say that the party has taken their support for granted.

In September’s primary, Cardin defeated Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mfume is backing Cardin in the general election. Cardin also has received strong support from pro-Israel donors.

Blue Wave Looms in R.I.

Although he was the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq and has said publicly that he did not vote for President Bush in the last election, Lincoln Chafee appears likely to be swept out of office by an anti-GOP wave. He continues to narrowly trail Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island. The state’s Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one, and Bush’s approval rating in the state hovers at slightly above 20%.

Pro-Israel activists dislike Chafee’s Middle East record, arguing that he supports a more balanced American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a rare concerted effort to sink an incumbent, pro-Israel political action committees first contributed to Chafee’s conservative primary opponent, Stephen Laffey, and are now backing Whitehouse.

GOP Star Falling in Pa.

After trailing Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. for months in the polls, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is not expected to win re-election. An icon of the right who is the GOP’s third-ranking member in the Senate, the lawmaker has vocally represented his party’s most conservative flank on such social issues as abortion, stem-cell research and the Terri Schiavo controversy, while continually calling for muscular confrontation with rogues in the Middle East.

The two-term senator has received considerable financial and campaign support from pro-Israel and Republican Jewish activists, who laud his support for Israel and his insistence that Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, observers predict, Santorum is likely to pull in far less than the 40% of the Jewish vote he garnered in 2000.

The Return of Joe-mentum

After suffering a bruising but narrow defeat to rival Ned Lamont in August’s Democrat primary, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is expected to handily win the general election as an independent. The three-term Senator currently holds a whopping 17-point lead over Lamont, according to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll.

While Lamont won the Democratic primary largely because of the left’s dissatisfaction with Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War, the senator’s current good fortune owes much to the support of independent and Republican voters. Lieberman’s rival from the GOP, Alan Schlesinger, scarcely has registered among voters or leaders in his own party — including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed time and money to Lieberman’s campaign.

In recent weeks, Lieberman and his campaign staffers have sought to paint Lamont as being in bed with political forces hostile to Israel, though the challenger has steadfastly defended the Jewish state.

Socialist Set To Win in Vt.

Longtime Rep. Bernie Sanders won’t change the balance of power in the Senate, given that he is an independent running for the seat of retiring Republican-turned-independent Senator Jim Jeffords. Nonetheless, Sanders, who has said he will caucus with the Democrats, is likely to make history November 7 as the Senate’s first avowed socialist.

The Brooklyn-raised lawmaker already has the distinction of being the longest-serving Independent in the history of the House of Representatives, where he has been since 1991. Surveys consistently show Sanders leading GOP opponent Richard Tarrant by 20 percentage points.

Neck-and-neck in Virginia

Virginia Senator George Allen’s neck-and-neck race against Democrat Jim Webb is among several that are likely to determine whether the GOP retains control of the Senate. Whatever its outcome, however, Allen’s bumpy ride through the dangerous terrain of racial slurs and identity politics has transformed him from a potential 2008 presidential contender into a man who hopes to hold on to his job come Election Day.

The bad news for Allen began in August, when he referred to a Webb volunteer of Indian descent as “macaca,” a word that means monkey and in some places is used as a slur to describe people of African descent. When observers speculated that Allen may have picked up the term from his French Tunisian mother, the Forward reported that she hailed from a prominent Sephardic Jewish family.

Allen’s initial denial and seeming discomfort with his newly discovered Jewish roots — he’s a practicing Presbyterian — drew criticism and ridicule. Then, just as Allen was scrambling to explain his response and insist that he was proud of his heritage, former classmates accused him of having used racial slurs during his college days.

In recent weeks, Allen has attempted to focus the attention back on Webb, a former Republican who served as the secretary of the navy during the Reagan administration, by painting him as a misogynist. Among other things, Allen’s campaign noted that Webb has opposed the admission of women to the U.S. Naval Academy, and it also criticized passages in several of his novels, claiming they were offensive.

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