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Steve Brozak: Hot Commodity? Or Exaggerated Threat?

Steve Brozak, the Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional district, has received more than his share of national media coverage. He’s been featured in a Wall Street Journal article and interviewed on CNN. And unlike all other Democratic Congressional candidates, he’s been chosen to speak at this week’s Democratic National Convention.

[IMGCAP(1)]“It’s a national race,” Brozak asserted confidently during my recent meeting with him, during which we discussed his background and his campaign.

Given all of this attention, you’d figure that Brozak — a former Marine with an MBA from Columbia University — is one of the party’s top challengers and has a good chance of knocking off incumbent Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) in November. Right?

Well, the evidence — and the numbers — suggest otherwise.

Leaving aside for a moment Brozak’s prickly personality and cockiness, let’s look at the record.

Brozak, who acknowledges that he didn’t vote in 2000, moved to New Jersey (and the 7th district) in January 2001. That means that he has resided in the district — and in the state — all of two and a half years.

Then there’s the fact that Brozak is paying himself a salary of about $10,000 a month — that’s $120,000 on an annual basis — from his campaign treasury. While this isn’t illegal, and while it has been done before, a lot of contributors won’t be pleased to hear that they are paying the candidate’s personal expenses. How would you like to know that your contribution is going to pay someone else’s mortgage or movie tickets?

Brozak’s own campaign literature also contains some interesting tidbits.

The one titled “Why Steve Brozak Will Win in New Jersey’s 7th District” asserts that while “the district was once solidly Republican … now the closer-in suburbs consistently vote Democratic and the rest of the district is leaning more Democratic.” But a memo included in his packet from his polling firm, Anzalone-Liszt Research, observes that “this district has trended Republican in recent elections.”

Rule No. 1: Try to avoid contradicting yourself in your own campaign materials.

Then there is the modest assertion in Brozak’s literature that “Steve’s experience as a Marine sets him apart as a leader in foreign policy and military management. …” Well, Brozak served as an infantry officer, and he was, according to his campaign literature, deployed to hot spots such as Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq. I’m impressed by that. But “a leader in foreign policy” makes him sound like Henry Kissinger or Clemens von Metternich.

But I don’t want to get picky, so let’s turn to his prospects.

Brozak’s literature asserts the state’s Democratic drift in races for the Senate, governor and the state Legislature. Of course, state results have nothing to do with this race, but let’s not be confused by the facts.

In reality, the numbers show that New Jersey’s 7th is a very Republican district.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) won election statewide in 2002 by almost 10 points, but he lost this district to opponent Doug Forrester (R) by a similar margin. In the 2000 Senate race, Republican Bob Franks clobbered Democrat Jon Corzine in the district by 18 points, 59 percent to 41 percent.

The good news for Brozak is that George W. Bush performed poorly in the district four years ago, winning it by only a percentage point. The bad news is that 2001 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim McGreevey, who beat conservative Republican opponent Bret Schundler by almost 15 points statewide, barely won the 7th district.

Any district that gave almost half its votes to Schundler, who was demonized by the state’s media as a dangerous right-winger, is a district willing to vote for conservatives.

The House incumbent, Ferguson, won reelection two years ago by an impressive 58 percent of the vote. Two years before that he had a tighter contest, winning by just 6 points. Of course, that was when the district had no incumbent — and before redistricting transformed the 7th from a 43 percent Bush district to a 49 percent Bush district.

Then there is Brozak’s February poll.

I’m sure that things have changed a lot since February, and many of them have moved in the Democrat’s favor. But while that February memo asserts that Ferguson is “in a precarious position,” the numbers don’t strike me that way. In fact, the poll results look like dozens of others I’ve seen that allege incumbent vulnerability. And yet, incumbents rarely lose. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Ferguson’s name ID is 45 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable — not bad numbers at all. And I’m not bothered by the fact that many voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion about him. This is, after all, New Jersey — nobody knows anything about his or her Representative.

Ferguson’s re-elect score of 42 percent (compared to 26 percent who tell pollsters they want someone new) combined with his 49 percent to 25 percent lead in the ballot test are a couple of points below what I would like to see for an incumbent, but not much.

I’ve been critical of Ferguson’s carpetbagging in the past — he ran against Rep. Frank Pallone and jumped into the 7th district race only when the seat opened up. And he and controversy haven’t exactly been strangers. I’d certainly agree that he is a juicy target for the Democrats.

But this is a difficult district in which to run, since it stretches across the state and falls entirely in the New York City media market, making broadcast TV advertising prohibitively expensive. According to data compiled by Media Strategies and Research, a Democratic media placement firm, the cost of a single gross ratings point in the second half of 2004 will average about $1,000.

With $200,000 in the bank on June 30 — and what ever happened to that other $200,000 he raised? — the challenger won’t have an easy time increasing voters’ familiarity with his name or cutting through the election-year clutter.

Yes, Brozak’s personal story is an asset, and his media firm, New Jersey-based Message & Media, is simply top-notch. And he’ll raise enough money to be competitive against Ferguson, who has some warts. But this race has received far more attention than it deserves, at least at this point, and the Democratic challenger has a long way to go before this contest moves into the top tier.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.