Let Torricelli Keep His Dirty Money

10 October 2002

By Stentor Danielson

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed Democrats a clear victory by declining to review a New Jersey court decision allowing Frank R. Lautenberg to replace Robert Torricelli on the state's Senatorial ballot. Republicans were frustrated that the last-minute swap was allowed to go ahead, despite a state law that seemed to bar changes to the ballot less than 48 days prior to an election.

Republicans were further frustrated by the polls -- while Torricelli trailed opponent Douglas Forrester, Lautenberg led by four percent in a recent poll. New Jersey is a staunchly Democratic state, having elected no Republicans to the Senate in the last 30 years. Forrester's victory became possible largely because of scandals that have haunted Torricelli, not any widespread shift of voters toward a conservative agenda.

But New Jersey Republicans aren't done challenging the Democrats' electoral maneuvering yet. A complaint to the Federal Elections Commission is in the works, charging that the money Torricelli raised for his campaign cannot, under federal campaign finance law, be transferred to Lautenberg's war chest. This issue presents a unique opportunity for Lautenberg to capitalize on both voters? Democratic political inclinations and their dislike of Torricelli. By refusing Torricelli's money, Lautenberg can capture the moral high ground.

The Torricelli affair has galvanized pundits and party leaders around the nation, with both liberals and conservatives seeing it as evidence of the other side's weaselly disregard for clean and fair elections. This is understandable, given the stakes. With the Senate finely balanced on independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords's tendency to vote with the Democrats, every race counts. Without a Democratic candidate, the seat would certainly fall to Forrester, despite the hopes on the Left that Democrats could successfully throw their support behind someone like Green Party candidate John "Ted" Glick. With Lautenberg in, the edge goes to the Democrats. Torricelli himself said "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate."

But the feelings of New Jersey voters are different, as a recent Washington Post report found out. Like most Americans, they are disgusted with the conduct of politicians as a class. Aside from diehard Republicans, most residents of the state don't hold the party's bending of electoral law against Lautenberg. It seems par for the course from a politician. Some may even remember that Forrester broke the same law with his late entry into the Republican primary earlier this year. While he was campaigning against Torricelli, Forrester was able to use that discontent to his advantage. Torricelli was mired in questions surrounding his acceptance of illegal campaign contributions.

He seemed to represent the archetype of the unethical politician, concerned more with his personal power than with voters. Forrester went on the attack, rallying New Jersey's voters against their tainted Senator.

If Torricelli handed off his funds to Lautenberg, Forrester would be able to stay on that message. He could point to shady financial deals as evidence that Democrats -- despite claiming to be the party of campaign finance reform -- will do whatever it takes to weasel their way into the Capitol.

Lautenberg could steal Forrester's "I'm not corrupt like Torricelli" campaign platform plank by declaring that he will be his own candidate, spending his own money. While it's possible that the transfer would be both legal and ethical, the political benefits of turning down what looks like a shady deal outweigh the financial benefits of accepting it.

Declining Torricelli's money would be a useful symbolic gesture that could build Lautenberg's reputation as an ethical politician. He's got a head start -- joining the campaign late means he hasn't had time to be tarred with scandal. And voters are likely to be sympathetic to a candidate who can project a strong moral image. In the political sphere, he would distance himself from Torricelli's conduct while tapping into liberal voters' distaste for parties' typical campaign finance shenanigans. And it would give him a segue into talking about the economy -- a top issue for voters, but one on which Democrats have failed to present a strong message during the 2002 campaigns. Conventional wisdom blames much of the U.S.'s current economic woes on politician-caliber unethical conduct by corporate leaders.

The national attention focused on the New Jersey race could also help to offset Lautenberg's need for cash. With only a month to go until election day, and with the efforts of independent political action committees and interest groups not dependent on the candidate for funding, Lautenberg's campaign bills will be small. The media coverage generated by Torricelli's resignation offers a lot of free press, which can be kept and even boosted if Lautenberg takes a notable and bold stance. This attention, coupled with the importance of every race to control of the Senate, will help bring in new dollars for the Lautenberg campaign.

Frank Lautenberg has a unique opportunity to turn Robert Torricelli's disgrace into a boon for the Democrats by turning away from the financial weaseling that seems rampant among America's leaders. Unfortunately, New Jersey voters are likely to be right about politicians' character - or lack thereof.

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