Smith undaunted by his 15th opponent

Very quietly, another challenger has emerged with the intention of doing what Democrats have found nearly impossible: ousting 14-term U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.

Josh Zeitz, 33, just got back to his hometown of Bordentown a few months ago from a four year teaching stint at Cambridge University in England. But he has already raised $43,000 under the radar, and hopes to get $100,000 before the year is up.

Zeitz, who has a PhD in history, taught at Rutgers, Brown and Harvard before heading to England. He also recently published two non-fiction books: Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern and White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics and the Shaping of Postwar Politics.

His money so far has come mostly from phone calls to friends and family and small private house party fundraisers. One of those parties was in Maryland, where he was introduced by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Zeitz emphasized that Van Hollen was not there in any official capacity).

Amy Vasquez, who ran against Smith in 2004, announced her intent to run again in an August press release, but does not appear to have raised any money. Carol Gay, who ran last year, has kept her committee, but has little money and has not indicated that she’s running again.

“I think Amy (Vasquez) should run the kind of campaign she wants to run. She’s great,” said Zeitz. “My feeling is that I’ve got to show credibility before I put out press releases explaining what I want to do.”

Meanwhile Smith has $204,000 on hand.

Zeitz was insistent that he wasn’t just throwing himself up against the brick wall that Chris Smith typically represents to Democrats, consistently winning reelection with 2/3 of the vote in this majority Republican district.

But Zeitz sees the district as similar to the one right across the Delaware River, where the Iraq war vet Pat Murphy, who turns 34 tomorrow, rode an anti-Bush wave to defeat incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania’s eighth district.

“I think what most people don’t realize is this district is really quite winnable,” said Zeitz. The key, like what Murphy did in Pennsylvania, is to tie Smith to the ever-unpopular President Bush as often as possible. “Chris Smith may have been a moderate republican back in the 1980’s, maybe even 90s, but ever since the Bush Administration took over, he’s been in lock step with them.”

Currently, Zeitz is writing press releases for local legislative and municipal candidates. And although he’s written on political issues in publications ranging from The New York Times to Mother Jones, Zeitz has never run for elected office before. He has, however, worked as a campaign staffer for former Sen. Bob Toricelli and former Gov. Jim Florio.

If the credentials appear too liberal for a Republican district that reelected smith last year by 66 percent – a district that became even more Republican after redistricting at the beginning of this decade — Zeitz begs to differ.

“I would call myself a centrist Democrat, which means I believe we need to emphasize national security. But part of emphasizing and strengthening our national security is getting out of Iraq,” said Zeitz.

But to Smith Chief of Staff Mary Noonan, Zeitz doesn’t present any more of a challenge than any of the many challengers who have come before him. The Pennsylvania district, she noted, has traditionally been a “volatile district,” where the incumbent was a first-termer, not a well-known incumbent.

“We’ve heard this song before,” she said.

Noonan touted Smith’s record on the environment, homelessness, veterans and health care as appealing to the moderate voters of the district who may tend to vote for a Democrat in a presidential race. When Clinton and Gore won the district in their presidential races prior to redistricting, Smith still managed to win by a large margin.

“No matter what the political climate, Chris Smith gets 65% or more,” said Noonan. “He is ballot tested and extremely popular because of the work he’s done for his district.”

Smith undaunted by his 15th opponent