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US Election 2002: Senate Races - A Runner Stumbles

The Senate Races: A Runner Stumbles


By Barbara O’Brien
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

The sudden departure of Robert "The Torch" Torricelli from the New Jersey Senate race evokes no end of sports metaphors. He fumbled. He choked. He dropped the baton. He hit the wall. The Torch is passed. It looks bad for the Dem team.

Right now the Senate is composed of 50 Democrats and 49 Republicans, plus Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, who left the GOP last year to become an independent (hooray). Senators serve six-year terms, and only 34 seats are up for grabs this November.

Of these, 20 are now held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. More Republicans up for re-election would seem to give the Dems an advantage. But more of the GOP seats are considered "safe" or "favored" for the incumbent, which leaves a nearly even split between contested seats.

The bottom-line, nail-biting reality is this: Control of the Senate could go either way in November. And Torricelli just fouled, so the Republicans get a free throw.

In July, the Ethics Committee admonished Torricelli for breaking Senate rules and showing "poor judgment" in accepting gifts from a campaign contributor. The Committee's decision was based mostly on the results of the Justice Department investigation, even though the Justice Department was unable to put together a strong enough case to file charges.

Nevertheless, Senator Torricelli apologized to the people of New Jersey for accepting a television, CD player and bronze statues from contributor David Chang, who was convicted earlier this year of violating federal campaign laws. And the Senate campaign moved forward.

Last week, the release of a Justice Department letter put Torricelli's ethics problems back on the front pages. The first paragraph of a New York Times story about the letter said:

“Federal investigators found ‘substantial corroborating evidence’ for the claims of a wealthy political contributor who said he had given tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts to Senator Robert G. Torricelli, prosecutors said in a letter made public yesterday.”

Torricelli had claimed there was no corroborating evidence, even while he was trying to keep the letter sealed. Bad move. However, several paragraphs later:

“... Mr. Chang's ‘fraudulent and deceptive conduct’ in his business and personal dealings, his false testimony in an unrelated civil deposition and his wild remarks in a brief interview with a reporter during the Torricelli investigation had all but destroyed his potential credibility in court. “

By Monday evening television talking heads had Torricelli tried, convicted, and ready for a firing squad. Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire" is an example:

“Now on Saturday we knew with a shadow of a doubt that the senator had taken these suits, probably taken tens of thousands in cash, literally, to lobby on behalf of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for a foreign government, to get money from North Korea, a criminal terrorist state. “

Well, let's just hang 'im now! However, the DoJ letter doesn't say what the "corroborating evidence" is. And whatever it is, it wasn't good enough for the DoJ to take a case to court.

Could Senator Torricelli be guilty of lapses of Senate ethics? Sure! Could David Change be lying? Absolutely! Could John Ashcroft's Justice Department be trying to influence an election? You betcha! Would you like to send the lot of them to the Arctic without a parka? Let's do it!

Torricelli has been a problem child for some time. Back in 2000, Torricelli put his hat in the ring for the New Jersey governorship. After a number of prominent Democrats announced they would not support him, Torricelli took his hat back. Although news stories say otherwise, one suspects a number of prominent Democrats had some private words with Torricelli to help him with his decision to withdraw.

The Democrats' next struggle will be to get another candidate on the ticket. The legal deadline for changing candidates has past, and the Republicans are already fighting to keep any other Democrat off the ballot. The Dems are preparing to go to court. According to ABC's The Note:

McGreevey and Torricelli, judging from their morning show appearances, seem confident that this can be resolved quickly with one-stop shopping at the New Jersey Supreme Court, now conveniently controlled by Democrats.

But the New York Times says this is destined for the US Supreme Court, and you can rest assured that Doctor/Senator Frist of the NRSC will take it to the SCOTUS and The Hague if necessary to stop this from happening.

Since the New Jersey Supreme Court is controlled by Democrats, given that it's New Jersey, well, we could imagine an associate of the Governor faxing over to the court a draft of the opinion they will be expected to issue quickly.

We are going to try to limit our making fun of New Jersey stereotypes today, but Democrats' confidence that they can get their guy on the ballot (with or without a Torch resignation) makes us think that they know something we don't.

So what's this about a resignation? Torricelli has not resigned his Senate seat. If he does, the state can circumvent the ballot deadline by calling a special election.

Would another Democrat have a chance? Although some parts of the state are quite conservative, in statewide races conservatives have not done well in the past several election cycles. New Jersey's Senate seats have been filled by righteously solid Democrats, including current incumbent Jon Corzine and former Senators Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg, for several years.

Jersey voters are moderates. They like Republicans who are anti-tax but pro-choice and pro-gun control, which does not describe Republican Senate nominee Doug Forrester.

The Dems have already asked Hall of Famer Bill Bradley to get back into the game, but the big guy declined. The honorable, liberal, and very short Frank Lautenberg has said he would consider running if asked, however.

It looks bad, but if the Dems move fast and get a Name Brand candidate who can refocus the campaign on real issues, they've still got a shot.

Elsewhere:

Here are the other toss-ups:

Minnesota: Paul Wellstone (D) vs. Norm Coleman (R)

Missouri: Jean Carnahan (D) vs. Jim Talent (R)

South Dakota: Tim Johnson (D) vs. John Thune (R)

Arkansas: Tim Hutchinson (R) vs. Mark Pryor (D)

Colorado: Wayne Allard (R) vs. Tom Strickland (D)

New Hampshire: John Sununu (R) vs. Jeanne Shaheen (D)

Texas: John Cornyn (R) vs. Ron Kirk (D)

Here is a closer look at some of these matchups.

Minnesota

Last week the Washington Post dropped this bomb on the Wellstone campaign:

“A top party strategist said every House Democrat who faces a tough reelection this fall plans to vote for the Bush resolution [on invading Iraq]. Senate Democrats are so concerned that Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (Minn.) could lose his seat because he will likely vote against the Bush resolution that they are drafting an alternative resolution ‘because he has to have something to give him cover,’ a Democratic Senate aide said. [Jim VandeHei, "Daschle Angered by Bush Statement," The Washington Post, September 26, 2002]

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Senator Paul Wellstone's press secretary quickly issued a denial. Challenger Norm Coleman quickly issued a statement comparing his stand on defense spending to Wellstone's.

Coleman had already been using Iraq against Wellstone, in spite of the Senator's reticence on the issue.

Rep. John Thune, the Republican challenger to South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who is taking on Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, have raised the issue of their opponents' 1991 votes against the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force to end Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

Johnson was in the House at the time, and Wellstone was in the Senate.

Neither has publicly indicated how he might vote if the Iraq issue comes to the Senate floor. [Mary Clare Jalonick, CQ Politics Reporter, Wednesday, September 18, 2002]

A decade ago Wellstone spoke out strongly against the first Gulf War, but he has been quiet about Iraq. Tom Webb wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

“Wellstone has stressed the need for a multinational approach, but hasn't gone much beyond that. He's given few speeches about Iraq, appeared on no national TV talk shows and didn't wish to be interviewed for this article.

‘The United States should unite the world against Saddam, not give Saddam the chance to unite forces against us,’ Wellstone said earlier this week.

‘Unfortunately, the Bush go-it-alone policy, allowing an invasion of Iraq without the support of other countries, would give Saddam exactly that chance. A pre-emptive go-it-alone strategy toward Iraq is wrong. And I oppose it.’

This week, disappointed anti-war protesters are staging a sit-in protest at Wellstone's St. Paul office, as well as the offices of other members of the Minnesota congressional delegation. ["Wellstone Keeps Distance on War Issue This Time Around," September 26, 2002]

Wellstone and Coleman also are fighting over the "P" word.

Like other Republicans, Coleman objects when his Social Security plan is called "privatization," even though that's what the plan was called when it was originally proposed by the Cato Institution. With the downturn in the stock market, focus groups must be turning a thumbs down to privatizing. Brilliant as ever, the GOP is keeping the plan but calling it something else.

Wellstone is running ads that accuse Coleman of being in favor of privatizing Social Security, by which Wellstone means Coleman is in favor of diverting a portion of Social Security into individual retirement accounts. Coleman is running ads saying that's not true. Instead of privatizing, he is in favor of diverting a portion of Social Security into invidiual retirement accounts.

Whatever you call it, economist Paul Krugman has written lucidly as to why "diverting a portion of Social Security into individual retirement accounts" is a really bad idea. (See, for example, "The Private Interests," The New York Times, July 26, 2002; "Fear of All Sums," The New York Times, June 21, 2002.)

Wellstone is also vulnerable because he will split the progressive vote with the Green Party candidate, Ray Tricomo. However, the 2000 Green nominee for Vice President, Minnesotan Winona LaDuke, urged Greens to back Wellstone in his battle with Republican Norm Coleman.

Earlier this month the Green Party of Washington County, Minnesota, broke ranks and endorsed Wellstone, who "has actively represented Green values for Minnesotans," according to county chairman Scott Bol. Gwen Engelbert, who brought the motion to endorse Wellstone, said "it would be foolish to lose the benefit of Paul's experience just for the sake of running a Green candidate at this time." (Judy Arginteanu, The Pioneer Press, September 21, 2002)

The loss of Wellstone, the most consistently liberal Democrat in the Senate, would be a victory for the Dark Side.

Missouri

My beautiful state-of-origin has moved up its presidential primary from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February, which will give it a bigger voice in 2004. And Senator Jean Carnahan has recently moved up a bit in the polls, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Zogby International. Of the 501 likely voters polled statewide in mid-September, 47.6 percent supported Carnahan, compared with 40.3 percent for Talent.

Senator Carnahan lost her husband, Governor Mel Carnahan, and her son in an airplane crash a few days before the 2000 elections. Governor Carnahan was campaigning for the Senate seat then held by John Ashcroft. Gov. Carnahan won the election in spite of being deceased (Missourians had John Ashcroft figured out, it seems), and Jean Carnahan was appointed by the new governor to serve in the Senate in her husband's place until the next election.

Senator Carnahan is running hard on saving Social Security from the greedy Republican privatizers.

Her Republican opponent, Jim Talent, announced his candidacy by proclaiming "I think both the right thing to do and the best thing to do is to tell people why you should be elected rather than why the other person is terrible." He is now running ads to let the voters know that Jean Carnahan received campaign contributions from Global Crossing. Of course, so did the Republican National Committee, which paid for the ads.

Talent, a four-term Congressman with a reputation for wonkishness, is also promoting himself as a savior of Social Security.

However, he co-sponsored a proposal to divert a portion of Social Security taxes into individual retirement accounts. Naughty.

- Barbara O'Brien, creator of The Mahablog!, is a New York resident and a freelance writer. She will be providing a regular column for Scoop on the US Elections. Readers are invited to visit The Mahablog! and see the Timeline of Terror!

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