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The Daughter Also Rises

A month after Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) made the surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election, state Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D) has suddenly found herself sitting on a few of the advantages usually reserved for incumbents.

Having run for the seat in 2006 — when she came within a hairbreadth of beating Ferguson — her name is certainly known throughout the four counties in the 7th district that stretch like a belt across the Garden State. And Stender certainly has a well-oiled political machine firmly in place; after losing her 2006 Congressional bid, Stender was quick to signal her intention for a 2008 rematch. At the same time she ran a re-election campaign for her state Assembly seat, which she won this November.

Stender also has a strong fundraising program up and running and she also can count on the unabashed support of her party’s national campaign committee — something that likely won’t happen on the Republican side until the party sorts out a crowded field of candidates.

Of those Republicans who have indicated their interest in the race, Hunterdon-based state Sen. Leonard Lance, who is the chamber’s outgoing Minority Leader, and Somerset-based Kate Whitman, the daughter of former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), appear to be rising to the top of the GOP lists.

But the 7th still is a Republican leaning district, and though the race may have been tight in 2006, Ferguson’s margins have been wider in presidential years. Ferguson won 57 percent of the vote in his 2004 campaign when President Bush got 53 percent, and the Congressman won 52 percent when he was first elected in 2000, a year that Bush earned 49 percent.

Even after Ferguson announced in November that he was retiring to spend more time with his family, state and national Republican party officials continued to push the notion that 2006 represented the best climate for Democrats to win the 7th district. If Stender couldn’t win then, Republicans say, she won’t be able to do so in 2008, when a fresh Republican name will replace Bush at the top of the ticket.

“Stender put forward an incredibly strong effort in the best year possible [for Democrats] and still fell short,” New Jersey Republican Party Chairman Tom Wilson said on Monday. “Maybe she only fell short by a little bit, but the fundamentals are going to be far better for us this year, particularly when you look at what presidential turnout means in Hunterdon County, Somerset County and the base Republican areas.”

Meanwhile, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain pointed out that in her 2007 Assembly race, Stender “was barely able to hold on to her seat.” She won by about 3,000 votes, an especially close margin considering her Republican challenger spent next to nothing on his long-shot bid.

The two leading Republicans in the race bring contrasting strengths.

Lance is a 17-year veteran of the state Legislature and his advantage over Whitman likely would be that he knows the issues and has experience moving legislation. Whitman, who serves as executive director of the Republican Leadership Council — an advocacy organization and political action committee for moderate Republicans that her mother recently co-founded — is seen as someone who could raise a lot of money very quickly for the race.

And raising money will be important for any Republican candidate. In this expensive media market, Stender, who hails from Union County, proved in the third-quarter of this year that she could raise money at the same clip as Ferguson. Also, the NRCC is badly losing the national fundraising battle to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle.

Other Republicans who have expressed interest in the 7th district race are Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, former Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield and former Hillsborough Deputy Mayor Chris Venis.

Another potentially strong Republican who is at least mulling the bid is state Assemblyman Peter Biondi, who hails from Somerset County.

Lance said Monday that he hopes Republicans can avoid a debilitating primary fight and find their candidate through a series of conventions held by the various county GOP organizations that could be concluded before the state’s filing deadline.

As they wait to find out who their new opponent will be in the 7th, Democrats are happy to point out that two top Republicans, former Rep. Bob Franks and state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the 2006 U.S. Senate nominee, already have decided to take a pass on the race to replace Ferguson. And they say that while they were optimistic about a race against Ferguson they are even more optimistic about their prospects in an open seat.

“Obviously [Stender] was gearing up in one direction to run against Ferguson, but the good news is there is plenty of time to retool,” Brad Lawrence, a Democratic political consultant in the Garden State, said. “It’s not that fundamental a retooling in the sense that the issue terrain is still the same … [and] having real experience and having done this and waging an almost successful campaign [in 2006] more than offsets whatever gearing up they had already done for [a race against] Ferguson.”

“More than ever this race is going to be about what I’m running for and not who I’m running against and the issues certainly haven’t changed,” Stender said on Monday. “Ferguson dropping out has put me in a stronger position. … Right now I am focused on my race. I’m going to leave [the Republican candidates] to fight amongst themselves because ultimately whoever it is is going to wear the mantle of failure over the past seven years.”

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