Few Unifying Themes In Northeast Battlegrounds

When it comes to presidential politics, it's difficult to overstate how important the northeast is to the campaign hopes of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Among other things, the region is home  to New Hampshire -- an early bellwether of election trends -- and New York City, the nation's acknowledged media center. Of more immediate importance to Bush and Gore, the densely populated northeast represents a veritable mother lode of popular and electoral votes.

Between New York and Pennsylvania, the two states control 56 electoral votes, more than 10 percent of the 538 needed to unlock 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The 2000 northeastern election season also offers up two tasty presidential subplots with a distinctly regional flavor. One is the unprecedented spectacle of a First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, waging a bare-knuckle battle to become a Democratic U.S. senator from New York.

The other involves a sitting Democratic U.S. senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, vying to become the country's first Jewish vice president.

Marquee contests aside, a number of lower-profile state elections will play a decisive role in molding congressional and statehouse politics for years to come. Then there's the unique case of Pennsylvania, where voters will register their displeasure with a Legislature better known for the activities of several lawbreakers than for those earnest politicians who merely pass laws.

In the eleven states that make up New England and the Mid-Atlantic, there are ten U.S. Senate seats open, three governors' races, and five statehouses up for re-election. Voters will face statewide ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, Maine and New York and politicians in four states will mount an offensive for control of the legislature.

On a state-by-state basis, voters are grappling with matters ranging from gay rights to prescription drug costs to equitable school financing and assisted suicide.

When viewed collectively, the 2000 northeastern elections may stand out for what reporters Thomas W. Waldron of the Baltimore Sun and Joe Donohue of the Newark Star-Ledger independently note is the lack of a single burning issue.

Pennsylvania and New York

Pennsylvania, with a higher-than-average percentage of seniors, is still a "good microcosm" for the country, having picked the winner in ten of the last 11 presidential elections, according to political scientist and independent pollster G. Terry Madonna of Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

Prescription drug costs remain on the agenda of the 2000 Legislature and both major presidential nominees have each addressed the issue directly during campaign visits.

A handful of state lawmakers from both parties have had well-publicized run-ins with the law. Most recently, state Rep. Thomas Druce (R) told party leaders that he will resign his seat after having pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident in Harrisburg last summer. But Druce has not given a specific date for his departure, which could temporarily leave House Republicans and Democrats at 100 seats apiece.

Another wayward politician is Democrat ex-representative Frank Gigliotti, who began serving 46 months in federal prison for extortion and mail fraud in July. Convicted polluter and Republican ex-senator William Slocum will campaign to win back his surrendered state Senate seat while under a five-month electronic house arrest. And the GOP has to live down its efforts to keep former state Rep. Frank Serafini in the Legislature while he appealed his federal perjury conviction late last year. Serafini finally abandoned his seat in January.

While unlikely to affect the outcome of elections for the U.S. House or Senate, the scandals threaten to strip control of the House from the Republicans, to the chagrin of Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and the GOP-controlled state Senate.

In Pennsylvania's neighbor to the north, New York Republicans are mounting a campaign hold onto their 11-vote edge in state Senate. Since the Assembly is dominated by Democrats and has traditionally been controlled by New York City, the Senate is the chamber that best represents the entire state.

But campaign coverage and voter attention has been dominated by the U.S. Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio. Clinton has two major shortcomings in the eyes of some New York voters; she isn't from the state and she supports a Palestinian state in the Middle East. It appears that New York will support Al Gore in the presidential race, but it isn't clear that his coattails will carry Hillary across the finish line in November.

Vermont and Delaware

Vermont Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who signed the first-ever statewide law allowing gay partners to receive most of the benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples, is in the fight of his life to keep his post.

The gubernatorial campaign is driven by debate over the state's new civil unions law, with polls indicating that most state residents are opposed to the policy, and adding that it would affect the way they vote.

Vermont's Senate now has 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans and the Democrats hold a 10-vote edge in the House with 77 Democrats, 67 Republicans, four Progressives and one Independent. Those numbers are critical for Dean, now in his fifth two-year term. If he fails to win 50 percent of the vote, as required by the state constitution for victory in gubernatorial races, the decision goes to the Legislature.

Dean's Republican opponent, Ruth Dwyer, garnered 41 percent of the vote in a challenge two years ago. But this time she has the civil unions backlash to capitalize on and a "Take Back Vermont" campaign that's motivated new, more conservative voters., a book on campaign finance.

There is no centerpiece issue in Delaware, where outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Carper is trying to unseat five-term Republican U.S. Sen. William V. Roth.

"Delaware voters respond less to issues than to personalities, and most traditionally, they give preference to incumbents. For the first time in memory, two popular incumbents are directly challenging each other," says University of Delaware political scientist Joseph Pika.

Carper, 53, is 26 years younger than his opponent, and referred to the "future" at least a dozen times when he announced his candidacy. Roth, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, is reminding voters of his considerable legislative accomplishments. One Roth sign reads "Roth: Independent, Respected, A leader for Delaware," the letters highlighted to evoke the popular Roth IRA retirement investment plan named after him.

Education reform and growth management, which topped Carper's agenda in Dover, continue to be important issues for Delaware voters up and down the ballot. Voters will show the level of their enthusiasm for the Carper agenda when they choose between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Republican former state Chamber of Commerce president John Burris for governor.

Pika says a Minner victory is "the closest thing to a sure thing this year," thanks in part to a party-splitting Sept. 9 Republican primary between Burris and former Superior Court Judge William Lee, who emphasized environmental concerns while taking two of the state's three counties. Lee's surprisingly strong showing against the party favorite led to a razor-thin 46-vote victory for Burris, which Lee conceded last week in announcing support for Burris.Control of the Delaware legislature, divided for decades with Republicans running the House and Democrats in charge of the state Senate, is not likely to change, experts say.

Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut

As in New York and Pennsylvania, party balance in the legislatures of Maine and New Hampshire could shift on November 7.

Maine has four key ballot initiatives that could draw out non-traditional voters and tip the balance of power in the state's House, now controlled by Democrats. They involve doctor assisted suicide for the terminally ill, gay rights, video lottery at racetracks and clear cutting of forests.

In New Hampshire, which has the largest state House in the country with 400 members, Republicans hold a lopsided majority and are seeking to regain control of an evenly divided Senate. But the legislative race is overshadowed by Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's reelection battle against former Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey.

"How to fund education . . . is the only issue" this year, says Andrew Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

In a December 1998 ruling, the New Hampshire state Supreme Court told lawmakers to come up with an equitable way to pay for public schools. Shaheen is sidestepping the issue. She assigned a blue ribbon panel the task of figuring out a solution and asked them to prepare their report for January 2001 after the election. Humphrey advocates a constitutional amendment that would take school funding out of the legislature's hands. He also would cobble together tax plans, cut the property tax and cap school aid at $825 million.

Rhode Island and Connecticut are also holding statehouse elections for their Democratic strongholds. Numbers are tight only in Connecticut's Senate, where Democrats hold a 19-17 majority, but University of Connecticut political scientist Kenneth Dautrich says their control is safe thanks to Lieberman's national stature.

Congressional Races

U.S. Senate races are being held in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New York, and Vermont, but the region's most competitive races will take place in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

In Connecticut "the main issue is Lieberman," said pollster Dautrich. "The salience of Lieberman as a candidate is going to far outweigh people's sense of the issues in this election in Connecticut." Lieberman, the first member of a national ticket to simultaneously defend a Senate seat since Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen filled the Dukakis ticket in 1988, should have little trouble defeating three-term Waterbury mayor Philip Giordano, who has weak support even within the Republican party. In fact, the only question remaining this year seems to be who would take his place in the event of a Democratic presidential victory in November.

Meanwhile New Jersey, a key battleground state for the presidential race, is in considerable political flux, with strong challenges from both major parties for at least three House races. Late summer polling failed to highlight a single decisive issue, but an Aug. 7 Newark Star-Ledger/Eagleton/Rutgers poll shows New Jersey voters most interested in hearing candidates address prescription drug costs, education financing, and taxes.

"The two stories here are apathy and apathy," says Jeff Pillets of the Bergen Record. But the U.S. Senate race between Republican Rep. Bob Franks and wealthy Democratic newcomer Jon Corzine has become surprisingly competitive in the polls. While Corzine spent a record $35 million during the primary season, Franks has had trouble attracting cash from national GOP coffers in his effort to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Meanwhile, Franks' open House seat prompted a feeding frenzy of hopefuls.

Money is also a story in Pennsylvania. The U.S. Senate race features two Pittsburgh-area politicians: Rick Santorum, a vulnerable freshman Republican from the city's suburbs, and Ron Klink, a Steeltown Democrat with strong pro-labor ties. Both candidates support some form of abortion restrictions, a top issue in Klink's primary victory over pro-choice state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, leaving the Democrat to fight the impression that the campaign is boiling down to his lack of support from the state party's financial capital, Philadelphia.

"Even though Santorum is quite beatable, [Klink's] really hurting for money," said Pennsylvania State University political scientist Michael Berkman.On Monday, however, it was Santorum who expressed a need for cash. He e-mailed supporters that it was "imperative" for him to raise another $675,000 in 15 days to buy more television time, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Elsewhere in the region:

  • In Rhode Island, experts agree that Lincoln Chafee, son of former Republican Senator John Chafee, will face a tough battle against Richard Weygand to keep his father's seat.
  • In New York, Democratic First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio are fighting for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's slot.
  • Maine's Olympia Snowe, a Republican senator who won her slot six years ago with 60 percent of the vote, has to run against state Democratic Senate President, Mark Lawrence. This battle may hinge upon the power of a handful of contentious ballot issues to drive voters to the polls.
  • Democratic Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy has barely had to lift a finger to defend his long-held seat against Republican Jack E. Robinson, who doesn't even have the full support of his party.
  • The Senate race in heavily Democratic Maryland, where two core constituencies are African Americans and federal government employees, is equally lackluster. "Elections here are so predictable, it's so boring," says University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel. Democratic incumbent Paul Sarbanes should easily weather a challenge from former Howard County police chief Paul Rappaport, a little-known candidate representing a weak state GOP.

Close House races in four states target vulnerable seats, with incumbents Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), Rush Holt (D-N.J.) Don Sherwood (R-Penn.), and Jim Maloney (D-Conn.) fighting to remain in office. In New York's 1st District, Democrats rejected their incumbent, former Republican Mike Forbes, strengthening GOP chances of returning the seat to their column.

Ballot Initiatives

In addition to Maine, Massachusetts and New York also have statewide ballot initiatives.

Bay State voters will consider a ban on greyhound racing, an income tax reduction, and a possible rollback on turnpike tolls. Boston Globe statehouse bureau chief, Frank Phillips, said there is also an initiative funded by international philanthropist George Soros that would do away with some mandatory sentences in drug cases and that would direct offenders into treatment programs.

New Yorkers will say yea or nay to a highway construction funding measure. And Republican Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond faces an uphill battle to get constitutional reform onto the ballot.