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House Garden Growth

Democrats Eye Gains in Several New Jersey Congressional Districts

Correction Appended

Garden State Democrats have high hopes of growing their majority in the state’s Congressional delegation, and some party operatives are going so far as to claim that four of the six Republican districts in New Jersey are in play this cycle.

But knocking off two-thirds of the Garden State’s GOP delegation would be a bit of a stretch, especially after no New Jersey House incumbent lost a seat in 2006, a cycle that GOP party officials readily will admit was the worst environment for Republicans in a very long time.

More realistic projections would probably put two GOP districts in play for now: the 7th, held by four-term Rep. Mike Ferguson, and the 3rd, which is held by 13-term Rep. Jim Saxton.

Ferguson represents a narrowly divided north-central district where President Bush only finished 20,000 votes ahead of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. More importantly, Ferguson is facing a rematch with state Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D), who narrowly lost to Ferguson by less than 3,000 votes last year.

As one New Jersey operative said last week, “Stender, with virtually no help from the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] last time, came within a few thousand votes or so of beating [Ferguson] based purely on the issue of the war. Since then you have more and more people turning against the war than were even turning against it a year ago. The DCCC will be playing this year, which they weren’t last time and meanwhile Ferguson continues to support the war and the president every step of the way.”

Meanwhile Saxton’s 3rd district was even more evenly split in the 2004 presidential election, with Bush narrowly winning the district 51 percent to 49 percent. And while Saxton won the district by 17 points in 2006 he now faces state Sen. John Adler, who DCCC officials have described as a top-tier challenger and someone who can raise the money necessary to compete in the expensive media markets that surround New Jersey.

Adler officially announced his intent to take on Saxton on Sept. 20 and brought more than $190,000 with him to the race from a Senate campaign fund he opened in 2003. He raised close to $40,000 in the ensuing 10 days leading up to the Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission filing deadline.

“Adler is a clear star, he is a very bright guy and he’s been waiting for the right time to run and I don’t think funding will be an issue for him both internally and certainly I think the DCCC will be helping,” said Brad Lawrence, a Democratic political consultant in the Garden State.

But Saxton’s 2006 campaign manager Jeff Sagnip said the DCCC and Garden State Democrats are giving in to a lot of “wishful thinking” after the state’s six GOP Members were able to weather the storm of 2006. Sagnip said he fully expects the DCCC to spend more money on the the state in 2008 but that it simply will be “money down the drain” from a committee that is overreaching.

In Saxton’s race, Sagnip pointed out that Adler and the Congressman faced off once before, in 1990 — before the district was redrawn and before Adler was in the Legislature — and Saxton won by 19 points. Sagnip said Adler still isn’t a known commodity outside his Cherry Hill base and faces “a significant name identity challenge.”

With a 2004 presidential vote split that was less than 2,500 votes — an even closer margin than in the 3rd district — Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) also might appear to be a vulnerable target in the 2008 cycle. But as of now, Democrats don’t have a challenger in the race, although they hope that Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D), who is running for state Senate this year, will enter the contest.

“Without Van Drew getting in, LoBiondo is safe,” the New Jersey operative said. “If he does, that becomes a competitive district.”

Farther down the scale of competitive races this cycle would be Scott Garrett’s (R) northern 5th district, which voted 57 percent with Bush in 2004, a big showing in a blue state. There are several Democrats who either have filed or are contemplating the race but no top-tier candidate has emerged.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley disputed the notion that any of the state’s Republicans are currently vulnerable.

“It is far-fetched for them to be calling these opportunities,” Shutley said. “We have proven Members in those districts that have proven they know how to win.”

But hopes are clearly high among state Democrats, who aren’t expecting to have to play any defense in the seven House districts they hold in the state.

DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said the 2008 Garden State landscape is shaping up to be even worse for Republicans than 2006, and part of what is fueling the Democrats’ optimism is the fundraising disparity between the two party committees.

“The NRCC can’t afford to compete in New Jersey in 2008 the way they did last cycle,” James said, pointing to the 10-1 cash-on-hand disparity between the two committees through the end of August. “With presidential year turnout, an unmotivated Republican base and strong Democratic recruitment in New Jersey, 2008 is going to be a bad year for New Jersey Republicans.”

The DCCC’s independent expenditures and in-kind contributions on Stender’s behalf totaled more than $53,000 in 2006, but spending by the committee is sure to rise this cycle. The DCCC already is spending money to target Saxton in an ongoing ad campaign attacking the Congressman and seven of his Republican colleagues for their recent votes against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill.

For their part, the state’s targeted Republicans have just completed a busy three months of fundraising. In the third quarter Ferguson raised $244,496 and reported $758,292 in cash on hand. Saxton raised $105,818 and had almost $1.4 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30. And LoBiondo took in $155,282 from July to September and had more than $1.5 million in cash on hand.

But Lawrence said all three Members are clearly vulnerable.

“I think it is possible to win any one or any combination of them with things breaking right,” Lawrence said. “Obviously incumbents do well and to suggest that they are all going to switch is probably a little bit of hype at this point, but they are all winnable.”

Correction: Oct. 16, 2007
The article incorrectly reported the third-quarter fundraising numbers for Reps. Franks LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Jim Saxton (R-N.J.). The Congressmen raised $155,282 and $105,818, respectively, from July to September.

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