A Look at New Jersey

Posted May 9, 2003 at 6:13pm

In just a couple of years, New Jersey has gone from an epicenter of competitive Congressional campaigns to a political wasteland, thanks in large part to a bipartisan redistricting effort in 2001 that reinforced every incumbent’s base.

[IMGCAP(1)] In 2000, the Garden State was a national battleground, producing close victories for Reps. Rush Holt (D), who edged out former Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) by 1,001 votes, and Mike Ferguson (R), who defeated Maryanne Connelly (D).

That year also featured a narrow victory for the $60 million man, Sen. Jon Corzine (D), whose personal fortune propelled him to a 3-point victory over former Rep. Bob Franks (D).

Now, however, the state’s Congressional politics has gotten incredibly static, with a House delegation made up of a baker’s dozen that appears content to stay safely in gerrymandered districts for years to come.

Of the 13 winners in last November’s elections, all but one garnered at least 60 percent of the vote, and even Ferguson won handily with 58 percent.

“Bob Franks was the last real aggressive person you saw in that delegation,” one GOP strategist remarked.

When Politicsnj.com, the political insider’s Web site for the Garden State, analyzed the delegation, it estimated that a handful of Members — Reps. Chris Smith (R), Scott Garrett (R), Frank Pallone (D), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) and Bob Menendez (D) — wouldn’t be retiring until at least 2018.

Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the redistricting process has so protected the incumbents — seven Democrats, six Republicans — that none of the races is expected to be competitive in 2004. “It was a total lovefest for everyone when they did redistricting,” said one House Democratic aide. The GOP believes an upset of Holt is not completely out of the question if he leans too far to the left and President Bush maintains his popularity.

“There are some solid Republican areas in that district,” said Jeanette Hoffman, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Republican State Committee, noting that Zimmer held the 12th district in the early 1990s. “We’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on Rush Holt.”

The Holt race could become intriguing in 2004 depending on the opponent, with one nationally known name being floated: former Independent Counsel Robert Ray, who lives in Rumson, in the eastern portion of the central New Jersey district.

After finishing up the final stages of the Whitewater investigation into the Clintons, Ray flirted with a Senate campaign in 2002, hoping to position himself as the law-and-order Republican contrasted to Sen. Robert Torricelli’s (D) ethical lapses. Ray never entered the GOP primary but has become active in local Republican circles.

“He’s all over the place,” said one GOP strategist.

Most notably, Ray has signed on as an attorney to state Senate co-President John Bennett (R), who is under fire locally for his law firm’s alleged overbilling of municipalities. Ray’s defense work in this case will no doubt win him friends among GOP insiders, although he could risk damaging a self-promoted Mr. Clean image.

The next open seat in New Jersey could come in 2006, assuming Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) lives up to his pledge to limit himself to 12 years in the House (he was first elected in 1994). LoBiondo’s 2nd district, the least densely populated in the state, is competitive on its face, considering former Vice President Al Gore won by 12 points there in 2000.

But LoBiondo has a solid Republican organization in this southern New Jersey district, and if his heir apparent, state Assemblyman Nick Asselta, won the GOP primary, he could be hard to beat. The top Democrat would likely be Assemblyman Jeff Drew, with a couple of other Assemblymen, Paul D’Amato and Doug Fisher, in the Democratic mix.

The remaining House districts in New Jersey will be pretty much locked in place until someone either retires or makes a statewide bid for governor or Senate. There is no shortage of House incumbents who would like a statewide office, particularly Pallone and Menendez, but there may not be any race for them to run. The Garden State’s governor appoints all Cabinet officials, meaning the governor and the two Senators are the only statewide officeholders there.

Corzine is up for re-election in 2006, but his popularity has remained high and no Republicans are lining up to challenge him. LoBiondo, given his likely retirement from the House in 2006, would be the only potential Congressional challenger to Corzine, but even his hefty $1 million war chest, as of March 31, pales in comparison to Corzine’s personal fortune that would likely be tapped again for a tough race.

Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) is up for re-election in 2005, and his approval ratings are downright abysmal — a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll conducted in late April showed his re-election number at just 26 percent.

But Ferguson was the only House Republican from New Jersey whose name was floated for the GOP nomination to take on McGreevey, and he has taken himself out of that race already.

Instead, Ferguson, 32, is widely expected to run statewide in 2008 for Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D) seat — although he hasn’t announced his plans. Many younger and ambitious Democrats and Republicans hope the former-senior-now-junior Senator will retire in ’08, when he will be 84, if not sooner. Ferguson could run for governor in 2009 if McGreevey wins re-election in ’05 (governors are limited to two terms).

A devout Catholic — he graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1992 — Ferguson is slightly more socially conservative than most Jersey voters, and his recent verbal jousting with a young woman at a Georgetown bar over whether he gave her his House pin didn’t help his clean-cut image.

But on economic issues, Ferguson has been fairly centrist, to the point where some local labor unions now support him.

If he were to run statewide, Ferguson’s seat could be there for state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R), the son of the former governor. Kean lost to Ferguson in the 2000 primary for the 7th district seat, and he’s maintained a very high profile in Trenton by promoting an anti-corruption bill known locally as “pay to play,” which tries to prevent state contracts from going to companies that give large campaign contributions.

Kean’s popularity, however, might mean a statewide bid for him, possibly in 2005 or in ’08 or ’09. This could ultimately lead to a Ferguson-Kean deal, with one agreeing to run for governor and the other agreeing on a Senate bid.

The other House Member angling for statewide appeal is Rep. Steven Rothman (D), a member of the Appropriations Committee who was never before thought to have lofty ambitions. Just a few years ago Rothman was being floated as a potential candidate for Bergen County executive, a local office; now he’s thinking statewide. His most likely race would be for Lautenberg’s seat.

Once a battleground seat for Democrats and Republicans, Rothman’s 9th district is now solidly Democratic because of redistricting and the increasing moderation of New Jersey’s suburbs. A host of Democratic Assemblymen would go for Rothman’s seat, with Paul Sarlo the best positioned, according to Politicsnj.com.

Menendez and Pallone have both come seriously close to running for the Senate on multiple occasions, but both have always backed off, most recently in 2002, when they turned down McGreevey’s advances to replace Torricelli on the ballot.

Pallone’s standing in the party was damaged, because some Trenton insiders believe he accepted the nod to replace Torricelli then backed down. It’s unclear when Pallone, 51, would be willing to give up his House seat when he could instead continue to increase his seniority on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

Menendez may still long to be a Senator, but might never have as clear a chance as he did last year. Plus, he’s now the No. 3 House Democrat in leadership as Caucus chairman, meaning that, at just 49, he has plenty of time to become the most senior Hispanic ever in House leadership, possibly even Speaker some day.

The only other districts that might be in play in the next decade are those of Reps. Jim Saxton (R), 60; Bill Pascrell (D), 66; and Donald Payne (D), 68. All three could retire in a few years. Saxton was just passed over for the chairmanship of the Resources Committee and is not line for any major positions.

A Saxton retirement would create a battleground race in a district that supported President Bill Clinton in ’96 and Al Gore in ’00. It would open the door to a pair of state Senators, Democrat John Adler and Republican Diane Allen, although Allen is also a possible 2005 gubernatorial candidate.

One potential wild card candidate is New York Mets All-Star Pitcher Al Leiter, a Toms River, N.J., native who has conservative leanings and who the GOP has long hoped would jump into politics after retiring from baseball.

Pascrell’s son, William Pascrell III, is widely expected to jump at the chance for his father’s seat once the former Patterson mayor decides to retire, but Congressman Pascrell was just appointed to the new Homeland Security panel and just missed out on a Ways and Means seat a few months ago. His retirement could be longer away than Garden State insiders initially expected.

And a Payne retirement would set off a huge primary battle in a majority-minority Newark-based district that could become racially and ethnically divisive between blacks and the growing Hispanic population.