Citing health concerns, U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton announced today that he will not seek a 13th term in office.
“Although I had intended to run in 2008 and was planning a strong campaign, developments which occurred earlier this year regarding my health have prompted me to make this decision,” read a statement issued by Saxton.
Saxton, 64, has been treated for prostate cancer and chronic sciatica, a back and leg condition, according to the statement. He has served in Congress since 1984, and first entered public office as a state Assemblyman in 1975. The announcement comes one year before Saxton, who has never lost an election, was to face what would likely be the hardest battle of his congressional career.
“I will continue to receive medical treatment, and my health care providers have indicated the prognosis is, in fact, very positive,” said Saxton. “…I have always done my best to serve the diverse Third District. When making tough decisions, I have honestly weighed the pros and cons at hand, and when possible, compromised and worked with Republicans and Democrats for the greater good.”
Saxton was expected to face a tough fight against Democrat John Adler, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, in a district that narrowly favors Republicans. Adler was tapped by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who see the seat as potentially vulnerable.
Republican State Committee Chairman Tom Wilson said that Saxton harkened back to a more “genteel” era of politics.
“He is somebody who comes from that time and place in politics that were much more genteel, somebody who has friends on both sides of the isle, someone for whom partisanship meant less than getting something done,” said Wilson, who cited Saxton’s record on military and coastal issues as his legacy. “His work on military issues is clearly going to be a big part of his legacy. But it’s probably more personal than anything. He’s an old fashioned politician.”
Saxton’s Republican colleague, Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents the 11th district, wished him well, and prominently noted his work on the Armed Services Committee. Had he decided to stay in Congress, Saxton would have become the committee’s ranking member after the upcoming retirement of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter. He’s credited with preventing the closure of Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and the Lakehurst Naval Air Station – all major employers in southern New Jersey.
“Every soldier today owes a great debt of gratitude to Jim,” said Frelinghuysen. “His tireless work on the House Armed Services Committee has improved their quality of life and that of their families on the home front.”
Democratic U.S. Reps Rush Holt and Rob Andres added their voice to praise Saxton, as did Republicans Scott Garrett and Frank LoBiondo.
“It has been a pleasure serving with him in Congress, including our joint effort – serving on the House Committee on Natural Resources – to protect the Pinelands and other pristine parts of our state. I look forward to continuing to work with him as he concludes his term and returns to private life,” said Holt.
Saxton’s retirement has led to intense speculation about who will replace him. A leading contender is Diane Allen, a Republican State Senator from Burlington County and a former Philadelphia TV network news anchor. She was re-elected to a fourth term this week with 56% of the vote. Allen sought the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2002 and finished second in the GOP primary.
Allen acknowledged today that she’s considering running, and has received phone calls from Tom Wilson and an official from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) asking her to consider running.
“It is not something I had ever given thought to because I assumed that Jim Saxton would be in office as long as I was involved in government,” said Allen. “My first sense that there was going to be an opening in the office was when Tom Wilson left a message in my office asking me to consider running, then I got a message from the NRCC asking me to consider running and my head has been spinning ever since. So yes I am considering running.”
Wilson said that Allen’s popularity in the Burlington County-dominated seventh legislative district makes her an attractive candidate.
“She has run for federal office before, she’s a good vote getter, and with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket there will be an added emphasis on getting a woman (to run),” said Wilson. “There are a lot of reasons for Diane to consider if it’s right for her at this time in her life.”
Other names being tossed around for Saxton’s seat from Burlington County are Sheriff Jean Stanfield, 8th district Senator-elect Phil Haines and Burlington County Freeholders Bill Haines and Aubrey Fenton.
But Ocean County, which also makes up a large part of the district, could also field a candidate. Possible Ocean County candidates include County Clerk Carl Block; Freeholders John Kelly, Joe Vicari and Gerry Little; Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, Assemblyman Chris Connors; and Ocean County Committeewoman and former Assemblywoman Virginia Haines.
Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore said that it’s too early to tell whether his organization will field a candidate for the seat, and that the three Republican organizations from the counties that make up the congressional district should all have a say.
“Hopefully the three organizations will have a consensus as to who the nominee will be,” said Gilmore. ‘I think we have to give it some time to see who is interested in running.”
Adler said that Saxton’s departure will not change the dynamic of his campaign.
“He’s been a gentleman to me over the years and on a personal basis I wish him nothing but good things,” said Adler. “I don’t think there’s any question that Congressman Saxton was and remains a popular figure in the third district, but I think the positions he and the Republicans embraced recently are more at odds with what the people of the third district need.”
The absence of an incumbent may boost Adler’s chances in this district, which can go either way in national and statewide elections. The district is dominated by Burlington and Ocean Counties, and includes the Camden County town of Cherry Hill. In 2004, Bush carried the district with about 51% of the vote, while in 2000 Gore won it with 55.1%. That same year, Bob Franks won the district over Jon Corzine by roughly 19,000 votes. In his 2005 gubernatorial campaign, Corzine lost the district to Doug Forrester by about 4,000 votes.
But while other Republicans had close races in the district, Saxton has consistently won reelection by solid margins. His closest recent race was against Susan Bass Levin in 2000, when he won 58.2% of the vote .
DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James suggested that Saxton’s decision to retire may be due to more than just his health. Saxton’s stance on unpopular New Jersey issues like the Iraq War and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program have handicapped him, she said.
“Congressman Saxton’s decision to retire is a clear indication that the Republicans who refuse to separate themselves from President Bush on issues like Iraq and providing affordable health care for 10 million kids are in danger of losing their jobs,” said James.
NRCC spokesman Ken Spain was confident that Repulbicans would prevail there.
“New Jersey’s third district is a Republican leaning seat. In last Tuesday’s elections Republicans in Burlington County posted impressive victories including winning an open state senate seat,” said Spain. “We are confident that we can retain the seat.”