Stender getting ready for round two

Democrats in the 7th Congressional District aren’t thinking twice about fielding Assemblywoman Linda Stender to run for the seat again in 2008, despite the fact that she already lost once.

That’s because Linda Stender did better than anyone expected last November, coming within one point – just about 3,200 votes — of unseating incumbent Republican U.S. Rep Mike Ferguson in a district that hasn’t elected a Democratic congressman or woman since 1954.

Although the last congressional race ended less than a year ago, it’s already taken for granted that Stender is going to run again, and no other Democratic candidate appears on the horizon.

While the county parties within Stender’s district will need to have conventions before officially endorsing her, county chairpersons are singing her praises. Somerset County Chair Elia Pelios and Union County Chair Charlotte DeFilippo were especially ecstatic about the prospect of Stender as the 7th District Democratic candidate.

“There’s a palpable excitement and anticipation for her to do it again,” said Somerset County Chair Elia Pelios. “I can’t imagine a groundswell for her to go a different route.”

Stender filed her paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in May, but said she had not spent much time raising money. Instead, she said, she’s focused on her re-election race in the Assembly, even if it’s widely considered a safe seat. Her recent sponsorship of the Global Warming Response Act wont hurt either. At the signing ceremony, she shared a stage at Giants Stadium with former Vice President Al Gore and Gov. Jon Corzine.

In 2006, the Democratic Congressional Committee did not focus as much on her race as it should have, not realizing that the race would be so close, said Stender. Overall, Ferguson had $1 million more than she did. But this year they’re not likely to repeat the same mistake.

“Clearly they did a lot right because they got a Democratic majority in congress,” said Stender. “But they did miss the momentum because I started 25 points down…. I kept going along and gaining ground, and when they were making decisions about where to spend money in September I was still 9 points down.”

Democrats, however, are not the only ones who claim excitement about Stender’s candidacy.

“We’re excited about the prospect of running against her as well,” said Republican political consultant Larry Weitzner. “We already know that she’s a big spender… She’ll also sell the turnpike. She voted for it in the budget twice, and included language that would sell the turnpike.”

Ferguson has already been pulling in a lot of money in anticipation of Stender’s challenge. Last quarter he raised $418,000 to start off his campaign war chest. Stender, who filed but had not yet started actively fundraising, only raised $500, bringing her total cash-on-hand to a little over $2,600. She has amassed a little over $50,000 for her Assembly run.

Republicans say that Stender’s best chance of winning the election was in 2006, when widespread disenchantment with President Bush and the Iraq War benefited Democratic candidates. This year, they say, those issues won’t be as important.

“If Linda Stender wasn’t able to ride the coattails of the worst Republican election season then she won’t be able to win in 2008 either,” said Julie Shutley, deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Last election cycle was the worst since Watergate. I don’t think she’ll be as successful in 2008, where we’ll have a total different environment.”

But Stender is banking on Bush remaining an albatross around the Republicans’ neck. Although his term will almost be up, come November, 2008 Bush will still be in office – and quite possibly still unpopular. Stender will likely spend much of her campaign associating Ferguson with a President whose disapproval rating is a whopping 74% among New Jersey voters, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

“The issues haven’t changed, and Mike Ferguson is out of touch with the district,” said Stender. “He continues to vote with the president on a war that was mismanaged from the beginning and is disastrous…… I think that he’s going to try to run away from his record, but it’s really clear because he voted for things that all the people are really upset about.”

“The 2008 election is certainly shaping up as a referendum on the Bush legacy and Republicans who stood by the president,” said David Rebovich, the Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. “(Ferguson) by and large he did. And Republicans like Ferguson will be on the defensive, trying to distinguish themselves from the party and the outgoing President… and that’s a difficult position to be in.”

Stender getting ready for round two