Few seen as vulnerable in NJ Congress

The News Leader

October 16, 2010 12:58:54 PM PDT
Though it's widely anticipated that Republicans will reclaim at least some of the Democrats' 258-177 edge in next month's midterm elections for U.S. House of Representatives, politics watchers expect New Jersey voters to return most - if not all - of the Garden State's eight Democratic and five Republican incumbents to Washington. "New Jersey is a special case," says political scientist Peter Woolley of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, who expects less voter backlash here than in other states where incumbents atop the ticket are fighting for their political lives.

With no governor's race or contests for U.S. Senate this year, the top of the ticket is the congressional races, with all 13 seats up for grabs.

In New Jersey, some of the anti-incumbent anger that's helping shape the midterm elections nationally was expressed last year when Republican former prosecutor Chris Christie unseated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine in the gubernatorial election. One recent poll shows more New Jerseyans feeling better about the direction of their state.

Also, New Jersey's 13 congressional districts were drawn to favor one party or the other - the only district that isn't considered solidly red or blue is the 3rd, which leans Republican and where the freshman Democrat is facing an uphill climb to keep his seat against a former pro-football player and political neophyte.

Though most incumbent congressmen feel reasonably safe heading into Nov. 2 regardless of party, a recent poll shows discontented New Jersey voters are also the most determined to come out on Election Day.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University-PublicMind poll released this week found that survey respondents who disapprove of the job President Barack Obama is doing identified themselves as more likely to vote than those who approve of his job performance.

Poll analyst Dan Cassino says that's a troubling result for Democratic candidates with less than three weeks before the election.

"Nationally and in New Jersey very similar things are happening," says Woolley, who administered the poll.

"The president's approval rating is down. People are pessimistic about he economy. People think the country is headed in the wrong direction and they are more disposed now to have a change of control in Congress," he said. "In addition, there are certain groups of voters who are angry and the angry voters are planning to vote."

Those who rated their chances of voting in the next election as excellent prefer that Congress turn over to Republican control by 5 percentage points, while those rating their chances of voting as less than excellent prefer that Democrats remain in control by 16 points.

New Jersey's most competitive race is the 3rd District contest between first-term Democrat John Adler, a South Jersey lawyer and former state legislator, and political newcomer Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles lineman who's making his first bid for elected office. The 3rd District stretches across the southern part of the state like a belt, from West to East, and includes Burlington, Camden and Ocean counties.

Runyan's main message has been that career politicians have run up the nation's debt and not solved its economic woes. He argues that citizens from far-flung backgrounds could do better. Adler says he's a moderate who's better suited to dealing with top leaders - an unsubtle dig at the not-so-eloquent Runyan.

Runyan's also hoping to make political gains out of a report that Adler's campaign helped put a third-party candidate on the ballot to siphon off votes from Runyan. The candidate, Peter DeStefano, is running as a representative of the "NJ Tea Party." Both DeStefano and Adler deny the charge. Established tea party organizations in the area are backing Runyan.

The 12th District also has a spirited contest between an incumbent Democrat and a newcomer Republican.

The Democrat, Rep. Rush Holt, is a plasma physicist-turned-politician who has been in Congress for 11 years. Holt comes from a political family: His father was the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate at age 29; his mother was the first woman secretary of state in West Virginia. His opponent, Scott Sipprelle, is the founder of a Princeton-based investment firm and former Wall Street executive. The son of diplomats, Sipprelle is the author of a recently published mystery novel.

Sipprelle's largely self-funded campaign lags behind Holt's financially. Sipprelle reports raising $588,000 for the quarter ending Oct. 1, including $458,000 of his own money. Holt reports raising $850,000. Sipprelle reports having $367,000 in cash on hand at the end of the quarter, compared with Holt's approximately $1.2 million.

The 12th District also touches the state's west and east borders, and includes 44 towns in five central Jersey counties.

Tea party organizations have played a role in the campaigns for Republicans in all three of the most contested races.

In Runyan's case, they've rushed to his aid to discredit DeStefano, the candidate tea party organizations claim was put on the ballot to pull votes from Runyan.

Sipprelle also has tea-party endorsements.

But the organizations are having the biggest impact on Anna Little's behalf. A small-town mayor who survived a tough Republican primary, Little is challenging Rep. Frank Pallone, the Democrat who has been represented the 6th District for 22 years. The district is centered in Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

Little bills her candidacy as "tea party-approved" and relies on members of the groups to help go door-to-door for her in a campaign being run on a tight budget. Pallone had amassed a campaign war chest of more than $4 million after the June primary, compared with $181,000 for Little. She reports having raised $314,000 in the third-quarter.