Republican Anne Evans Estabrook yesterday opened her campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), taking on the state's recent political history as well as the incumbent senator.
New Jersey voters haven't elected a Republican to statewide office since 1997 or sent a Republican senator to Washington since 1972.
But change the names of the candidates, flash back to 1990, and it becomes easier to understand why the real estate developer from Spring Lake thinks she has a shot.
Back then, the relatively unknown Christie Whitman went up against an incumbent with a big name: U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D., N.J.). When Whitman lost by only one point, she proved a Republican woman with a moderate political agenda could get voters' attention. Whitman used that race to propel herself to the governor's office.
While the state has become much more reliably Democratic, Estabrook's campaign in some ways will evoke Whitman's.
Estabrook plans to portray herself as an outsider who wants to cut federal spending, pump up the economy, and, touching a more recent issue, seal American borders.
"New Jersey has an affordability crisis on a scale unimagined in our state's history," she said yesterday to applause at the Window Factory in Haddon Heights. "Our income taxes are too high, our sales taxes are too high, and our property taxes are the highest in the nation."
Noting President Ronald Reagan as a role model, she said, "I am allergic to government regulation and red tape. And in New Jersey it's almost always allergy season."
She lined herself up with President Bush's foreign policy, saying troops in Iraq were quelling the violence there but that she would plan to bring them home "as soon as we can responsibly do so." She opposes setting a date for withdrawal.
Estabrook supports abortion rights but favors parental notification and opposes late-term and "partial-birth" abortions.
While Estabrook said she wouldn't discuss Lautenberg's age - he will be 84 in January - she said, "People like our own Sen. Frank Lautenberg have had their chance."
She drew distinctions between herself and Lautenberg, noting he voted for an immigration amnesty bill in 1986, has supported tax hikes, and is a member of a Democratic majority that funded peanut storage, cricket eradication, and "a hippie museum in Woodstock."
His campaign declined to respond, with spokesman Brandan Gill saying Lautenberg was busy "standing up to powerful special interests." He called his boss "a relentless national leader pressuring the Bush administration to end the Iraq war."
To get to Lautenberg, Estabrook may have to survive a Republican primary. Morris County Republican Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio, recently elected to the state Senate, said he would make a campaign announcement in January.
Estabrook, 63, of Spring Lake, is the granddaughter of a first-generation American from Wales who was a construction worker and built a real estate empire. She has three children, 14 grandchildren and four stepchildren.
Estabrook's mother died when she was 2. She was raised by her grandfather, David O. Evans, and was married to the late Kenneth Estabrook, a lawyer who served as chairman of Kean University's board. She held a campaign-kickoff event at Kean yesterday morning.
Estabrook runs her grandfather's businesses: the Elberon Development Co., which owns about 202 million square feet of industrial space in New Jersey, and David O. Evans Inc., a property management company.
Between 2003 and 2005, she was the first woman to chair the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. She served on the board of the Elizabeth Town Water Co. and the board of her alma mater, Cornell University, and is a trustee of Catholic Charities in Newark.
Estabrook said she did not know how much of her own money she would invest in her campaign, which she estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million. She has long been a reliable small-dollar donor to Republican causes and said she'd be aggressively raising funds.
Lautenberg, first elected in 1982, brought $5 million of his personal wealth to his first campaign.
Lautenberg reported to the Federal Election Commission that he has $2 million in outstanding loans from himself to his campaign fund. He had $3.6 million in ready cash by Sept. 30, according to his latest FEC report. Estabrook's reports aren't due for weeks.