N.J., Va. Governor Campaigns Get Nasty

By Robert Tanner
Published November 6th 2005 in AP National
In an off-year election, campaigns for governor in New Jersey and Virginia have turned especially nasty, dragging in Adolf Hitler and an ex-wife's claim of betrayal in negative ads that pollsters say have turned off the public.

And that's not all. A paralyzed teen in a wheelchair criticized one candidate's stem-cell research stance in New Jersey, records have been distorted in both states, and a $470,000 loan to a politically connected ex-lover sparked accusations of wrongdoing in New Jersey. Spending records were broken in both states, while polls show voters are unenthusiastic.

"It's awful," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "These two races are the worst possible combination — nasty and dull. It doesn't get any worse."

Still, those contests top the bill Tuesday, when mayors will be selected in New York, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta and several other cities. Ballot questions also go before voters in seven states, including several in California that are seen as a referendum on the sagging popularity of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

President Bush's stature is sure to be evaluated by election results, too, with Democrats hoping that his low approval ratings will help push them to victory in both gubernatorial races — at least, they'll claim that as a factor.

In New Jersey, the latest polls show Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine (news, bio, voting record) with a slight lead over Republican Doug Forrester for an open seat.

In Virginia, Republican Jerry Kilgore, the former attorney general, is in a too-close-to-call race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine for an open seat.

Virginia's harshest ad criticized Kaine, a Roman Catholic, for his opposition to capital punishment. On radio and television, the father of a murder victim tells viewers: "Tim Kaine says Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was one of the worst mass murderers in modern times."

Kaine, a former criminal defense attorney who had suggested to a panel of newspaper reporters that he wouldn't favor executing Hitler, Josef Stalin or Idi Amin, fired back with an ad pledging to carry out death sentences "because it's the law."

The death penalty, property taxes and immigration dominated debate in Virginia, which has voted more and more Republican in recent years — even while current Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, barred by law from seeking a second term, holds soaring approval ratings.

In New Jersey, each candidate flung accusations about ethical improprieties and tried to tar the other with links to political corruption.

Corzine accused Forrester, a Republican businessman, of being part of the state's "pay-to-play" culture of awarding no-bid government contracts to political donors. Forrester tied Corzine, a former Wall Street executive, to a convicted businessman and former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned over an extramarital gay sex scandal.

Forrester, who had repeatedly raised family values against the divorced Corzine, ran a TV ad quoting Corzine's ex-wife. She had told The New York Times: "All I could think was that Jon did let his family down, and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too." Joanne Corzine said her former husband's political ambitions destroyed their 33-year marriage.

Corzine's $470,000 loan to a former girlfriend, the head of a state employees' union, also drew headlines.

Corzine's campaign has run its own controversial TV ads, including one that featured Carl Riccio, a 19-year-old who lost the use of most of his limbs nearly three years ago during a wrestling match. "Doug Forrester doesn't support embryonic stem cell research, therefore, I don't think he supports people like me," Riccio says.

In other races around the country, California voters are being asked to cap state spending and give Schwarzenegger more power to cut budgets, rein in public employee unions, and take away legislators' power to redistrict. New York City polls showed Mayor Mike Bloomberg far ahead in his bid for a second term, while Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick appeared at risk of defeat. Other cities electing mayors include Atlanta, Boston, Houston and San Diego.

Many voters in New Jersey and Virginia have complained about the negative ads. One poll in New Jersey found that more than half the respondents said negative ads bothered them "very much."

Some observers and pollsters, however, say that those results don't portray a complete picture.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy, said despite the tone, both campaigns are still arguing about substance — taxes, death penalty, immigration, ethics. "It's negative, but it's actually negative about some issues," he said.

Sabato argued that the harsh tone reflects the still-bitter partisan and political reality of the country.

"It's the era," he said. "This is a very divided, polarized era when the issues lend themselves to distortion and the consultants are determined to run negative campaigns."