The New York Times

Senate Control At Stake In Costly New Jersey Election Fight

The New York Times — Tuesday, November 4, 2003


TRENTON, November 3 — New Jersey's legislative campaigns drew to a close on Monday with a flurry of negative television advertisements, predictions of low voter turnout and polls suggesting that either party might seize control of the evenly split State Senate.

While final campaign spending documents have not yet been tabulated, state election officials predict that this year's contests are almost certain to become the most expensive in state history.

Republicans, trying to make the contests a referendum on Gov. James E. McGreevey, spent the weekend on a "Stop Jim McGreevey Bus Tour" urging voters in South Jersey to vent their frustration by vanquishing the governor's fellow Democrats.

But Democrats used a multimillion-dollar advantage in campaign financing to cram the airwaves with ads blaming Republicans for the state's budget problems, hoping to make Mr. McGreevey the state's first governor in 50 years not to lose legislative seats during a midterm election.

Political analysts say the outcome of the election — and control of the Legislature — will depend on races in a handful of districts that appear too close to predict. But the tone of the contests has been so bitter — one piece of Democratic campaign literature featured a photo of an actor in a straitjacket and urged voters to throw a Republican lawmaker out of office before he was sent to a mental institution — that some experts suspect many New Jerseyans will stay away from the polls.

"It's been a highly insulting campaign to the public — most of the money was spent on negative television ads," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University. "So citizens may wonder if they can take the candidates seriously. And I think the sense is that people just want to stay home and sit this one out."

Democrats currently hold a 41-to-38 majority in the General Assembly, with one Green Party member.

With Tuesday's elections possibly changing control of the Legislature, as of the Oct. 23 filing deadline, candidates in the 120 races had raised more than $34.7 million. But elections officials expect the total to easily top the $41.2 million spent two years ago.

Democrats, who control the governor's office and General Assembly, have been outspending Republicans by a two-to-one ratio, a fact that has made the party's political ads seem neverending, especially in South Jersey.

In one district, Democrats have spent more than $2 million to promote the State Senate candidacy of Fred Madden, a former acting superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, who is facing an uphill battle in his effort to unseat George F. Geist, the Republican.

Steve Bonime, an analyst for the watchdog group Citizen Action, said the fact that candidates spent exorbitant sums for legislative seats that were part-time jobs sent a dispiriting message to the public.

"Candidates for public office are still viewed as prime investment tools for private wealth," Mr. Bonime said. "Money buys influence. Otherwise, why would all these donors be willing to spend so freely?"

Yet it is negative publicity, rather than money, that has played a key role in the most closely watched contest: the re-election bid of the state's top Republican elected official, John O. Bennett.

Less than two years ago, Mr. Bennett became co-president of the deadlocked State Senate, spent several days as acting governor and was talked about as a potential candidate for governor himself. Since then, he has been hobbled by questions about the billing practices of his law firm — which have brought a succession of unflattering news reports and an investigation by the F.B.I. — leaving Mr. Bennett struggling to withstand a challenge from Ellen Karcher, a Democrat

During the campaign's closing days, Mr. Bennett said he sensed that voters had tired of his opponent's "nonstop negative assaults." But Ms. Karcher says that Mr. Bennett has made repeated personal attacks — and at one point said that her late father, Alan J. Karcher, a former Assembly speaker, would be ashamed of her.

With no statewide elective offices at the top of the ballot, some election officials expect that only a third of registered voters will make it to the polls, which would be a record low.

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