Is Senate worth $34 million?

June 02, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Even for those who have grown accustomed to grotesque numbers in politics, the $34 million Jon S. Corzine is spending to win a Democratic nomination for the Senate in New Jersey seems a little outlandish.

It is, as you may have guessed, the new record for a Senate campaign, passing the $30 million mark established by Michael Huffington in a California campaign six years ago. But Mr. Corzine has accomplished this feat just competing in the primary Tuesday. Mr. Huffington frittered his money away in both capturing the Republican nomination in a primary and then losing the general election to Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Mr. Corzine isn't even assured of the nomination. Although opinion polls have established him as the favorite in the Democratic primary against former Gov. Jim Florio, it is no boat ride. The four Republicans competing in their primary are largely unknown, but at least two of them have statewide potential if they can get the nomination and the attention that comes with it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Florio and his supporters are accusing Mr. Corzine of trying to buy not only the election but the party itself with direct grants to finance local Democratic organizations for which $20,000 over the transom is manna from heaven. It is not a charge easy for Mr. Corzine to deny. The 52-year-old former chief executive of Goldman Sachs has no conventional political credentials, although he has been involved in civic good works from time to time. As a self-made business success, he has accumulated $400 million, or some such bizarre figure, and is willing to spend it.

The comparisons with another wealthy New Jersey political neophyte, Steve Forbes, are obvious. But Mr. Corzine is not trying to buy the White House, only a Senate seat. And he would not be the first member of the Senate to get there by using his personal wealth. The retiring Democrat he is trying to succeed, Frank Lautenberg, is a case in point.

But those critics who are offended by people using their personal wealth to gain political power also should weigh the alternatives. In many cases, the only other choices are career politicians who have little if any more true connection to the average citizen than the wealthy opponents they find so offensive.

That complaint probably cannot be made with any validity against Mr. Florio, who came from modest beginnings and served a long apprenticeship in politics. He spent 15 years in the House of Representatives before winning the governorship in 1989.

But his political performance as governor was notoriously clumsy, particularly in promulgating a huge tax increase that went far beyond what voters had been led to believe was necessary. The result was that after a single term, he was defeated in 1993 by Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican with no experience in any public office above the town government level.

Indeed, Mr. Florio's negatives remain high enough even today so that many party leaders, including both Senator Lautenberg and Sen. Robert Torricelli, have endorsed Mr. Corzine as their best hope for holding the seat. Mr. Florio's party support comes largely from Democratic leaders in his native south Jersey.

The spending by Mr. Corzine can be explained in part by the most distinctive quality of New Jersey politics -- the fact that the state has no network television station of its own. This means that candidates must use high-cost stations in New York and Philadelphia to reach voters with their commercials even if their message is largely wasted on viewers in other states who cannot cast ballots for them.

The lack of home-state television distorts Jersey politics in many ways. It means that it is harder to get the televised news coverage that candidates prize even more than commercials. And that, in turn, puts a somewhat higher premium on whatever attention they can earn from radio stations and local newspapers. It also means that the role of local party organizations may be somewhat more important than in a state such as California in which entire campaigns are often played out in television advertising.

So Jon Corzine's record spending may not be as profligate as it appears to be. But it does make you wonder why anyone would think a seat in the Senate was worth that much.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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