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Division in Local Parties Could Impede GOP Quest to Hold Saxton’s Seat

Over the course of the week after 13-term Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) announced that he would not seek re-election in 2008, the Republicans’ search for a successor for his 3rd district seat went from unclear to downright confusing.

By Friday, the list of potential GOP candidates had settled to around a half-dozen — one interesting candidate who removed his name from consideration midweek was Al Leiter, a former Major League Baseball pitcher — but the stage is being set for a showdown between the local Republican parties from the district’s two largest counties.

Burlington County makes up about 45 percent of the 3rd district and Ocean County comprises about 40 percent of the district, so the considerations of the two counties’ Republican parties were something that Saxton often was forced to balance during his time in Congress. By all accounts he did that job well, but his departure could now lead to a potentially hobbling primary fight between the preferred candidates of each county.

And that could hurt the Republicans as they fend off a furious challenge in a competitive district from state Sen. John Adler (D).

Adding to the uncertainty for 3rd district Republicans is an ongoing internal battle within the Burlington County GOP, which is keeping that group from coalescing behind one candidate. Some Burlington County party members are asking the group’s acting chairwoman to hold new leadership elections so the county party can reform under new leadership.

“I’m confused too,” admitted Saxton of the state of affairs in the Republican race for his seat.

The Congressman said he went to great lengths to keep his retirement to himself before Nov. 9, but now that the race has begun, “I’m going to be talking to the two county chairmen and try to do what I can to have this situation play out with some scenario other than a primary. I think it will be very healthy for continued Republican representation to move forward with a decision made by the parties prior to the primary. But that may or may not be possible. We’ll have to wait and see.”

But as Saxton waits, some Washington, D.C., pundits have moved his seat into the “tossup” category for next year’s election and Democratic operatives are downright giddy about Adler’s chances.

Pointing to Republican performance in state and local elections earlier this month, Saxton said, “I think it is a bit wishful thinking on some Democrats’ part who are saying this is a tossup race. I don’t think it is.”

As of Friday afternoon, state Sen. Diane Allen (R) — a former TV anchorwoman — appeared to be an early frontrunner for the GOP in Burlington County. Allen, who won her state Senate race in a traditionally Democratic district earlier this month with 56 percent of the vote, could be the kind of fundraiser needed for a battle that has certainly in the past week moved up the list of targeted seats for Democrats. Saxton spent $1.3 million to win his seat in 2006, and he sat on a campaign war chest of around $1.4 million as of Sept. 30.

“As we go forward, I’ll make decisions about what I will do with my money,” Saxton said. “That money will go to candidates somewhere … but we’ll wait and see.”

Other GOP officials mentioned in Burlington as potential candidates include Sheriff Jean Stanfield, Freeholder Aubrey Fenton and former state GOP Chairman David Norcross.

In Ocean County, the names of three Republican freeholders have been floated for the race: Jack Kelly, Gerry Little and Joe Vicari.

“They are all my friends,” Saxton said. “They are all people I’ve worked with as a Congressman and public officials of various stripes and so I am talking to all of them and answering their questions about life in Congress and what you have to do to run a campaign.”

But one Republican source close to the situation in New Jersey said that until Burlington County can work out its leadership woes and unite behind one candidate, “Allen’s future will be a real question mark. In the meantime, while Rome is burning in Burlington the folks in Ocean are moving forward. But the problem for Ocean is they don’t really have a strong horse in the race. They are going to have some funding issues and they should realize that the idea of Washington getting involved in a primary is ridiculous.”

Burlington County GOP Executive Director Chris Russell said late last week that “there’s a hope within the party that we can have a duly elected chairwoman or chairman by early December and certainly before the end of year. Then we can focus on all these things, the Saxton seat and other things that the county party has to deal with, so that we can coalesce behind one candidate from Burlington County.”

“There is an organization and I think the organization is determined to unify behind a candidate,” Allen said Friday. “I feel that dissent will at some point end and we’ll all be moving forward together.”

Allen added that she hopes Republicans in Burlington, Ocean and the part of Camden County that is in the 3rd district can in the end come to an agreement that will put one candidate in the best position to defeat the assumed Democratic candidate, Adler.

“I think lots of folks are going to look at this and that’s a good thing,” Allen said. “Ultimately I would hope that decision were made, in terms of support and so on, based on who the best candidate is and who can actually win and [that Republicans will be able to] eliminate a primary.”

But any Republican faces a tough challenge from Adler, who recently was endorsed by the 2006 Democratic nominee for the 3rd district, Rich Sexton.

“I think the district had already been moving in my direction. Congressman Saxton had become increasingly out of step with the expectations and needs of the people of our district,” Adler said on Friday. “I think the message hasn’t changed. I’ve been hearing from people that they expect real change in Washington. … My message is reflecting what I’m hearing from voters.”

But Adler said there have already been a few benefits from his biggest competition dropping out of the race.

“It’s been nice that I’ve gotten a lot more phone calls returned from various interest groups since the Congressman’s announcement and I welcome all those calls and they are welcome to join the team,” he said. “Fundraising had already been going very well. … It has picked up somewhat in the last few days but it was going well prior to Congressman Saxton’s announcement and I suspect it will keep going well.”

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