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Court Fight Could Determine Balance of Power in US Congress - 2002-10-01


New Jersey's State Supreme Court says it will consider a request by Democrats to replace Senator Robert Torricelli on the November election ballot. Senator Torricelli abandoned his re-election campaign Monday in a race that could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

With Democrats clinging to a one-vote margin in the Senate, the New Jersey race has suddenly become a key battleground in the November 5 congressional midterm elections. Thirty-four of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are being contested this year, but only about 10 of those races are seen as close, including the one in New Jersey.

A few months ago, Senator Torricelli had a comfortable lead over his little-known Republican opponent, Doug Forrester. But Mr. Forrester continued to hammer away at Senator Torricelli's longstanding ethics problems, stemming from allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from a campaign contributor named David Chang, who is now in prison.

Senator Torricelli was admonished for his conduct by the Senate Ethics Committee.

In recent weeks, public opinion polls showed such a dramatic drop in support for Senator Torricelli that he concluded he had virtually no chance of winning re-election, a prospect that could lead to Republicans reclaiming control of the Senate.

Senator Torricelli says he decided to step aside to give Democrats a fighting chance to retain a seat they must have in order to hold on to control of the Senate. "But I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate. I will not allow it to happen," he said.

New Jersey election law forbids replacing a candidate on the ballot less than 48 days before the election. Democrats must convince the New Jersey Supreme Court to allow them to replace Senator Torricelli with an, as yet, undetermined substitute candidate.

Republicans, led by Senate candidate Doug Forrester, are vowing a protracted legal fight. "The laws of the state of New Jersey do not include a 'We-think-we-are-going-to-lose-so-we-get-to-pick-someone-else' clause," Mr. Forrester said.

Stuart Rothenberg publishes a non-partisan political newsletter in Washington. He says the Democrats have little to lose by trying to replace a candidate who seemed likely to lose his bid for re-election. "So, if you begin with that premise, that the Democrats were going to lose this seat, then anything that they can do, either to improve their chances or at least confuse the situation, can only have upside potential, it can only be better for them. It may not be great, it may not be ideal, but at least they have a chance of winning the seat now and that is better than having no chance," Mr. Rothenberg said.

But Republicans argue that the election is already underway since absentee ballots have been sent out to U.S. military personnel abroad with Senator Torricelli's name on them.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the Democrats need to worry about a possible backlash among voters. "The Democrats would have to convince voters that this is a fair thing to do, that it is not another political politician's ploy, an insider trick. If they could get by that, get by finding a candidate, get by the legal issues, they do have a good state to run in and they have a candidate to run against, Republican Doug Forrester, who has been running only against Bob Torricelli," he said.

Senator Torricelli was seen as the most endangered Democratic incumbent and Republicans were counting on his defeat as part of their strategy to win back control of the Senate.

New Jersey Democrats hope to settle on a replacement Senate candidate quickly, but even when they do, there is no guarantee that the state supreme court will allow that person's name to appear on the November ballot. That would force the Democrats to mount a write-in campaign, a tactic that rarely produces a winning candidate.

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