Pundits say Pallone, Holt are favorites for re-election

New Jersey Republicans think they see something that congressional prognosticators don’t: vulnerable House Democrats in districts 6 and 12.

Both are home to well-entrenched and well-funded incumbents: Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) in the 6th, and Rush Holt (D-Hopewell) in the 12th.  And both have significant Democratic registration advantages over Republicans. 

In fact, in normal years, those who choose to run against incumbents like Holt and Pallone are jokingly termed “Kamikaze candidates.”  This year, however, is different. Republican Gov. Christopher Christie beat Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine by significant margins in both districts, and with 2010 shaping up to be a good year for Republicans nationally, Republicans are eagerly lining up for a chance to run.

In Holt’s district, Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre and Princeton venture capitalist Scott Sipprelle are locked in a contentious Republican primary.  Sipprelle even put a quarter million dollars out of his own pocket into his race to start and has pledged to match at least $1 million in donations.   In Pallone’s district, Highlands Mayor Anna Little and Two River Times publisher Diane Gooch are preparing for a primary, with Gooch putting in $150,000 of her own money and pledging to match all further donations. 

But neither race has made so much as a blip on the radar screens of the three major House race forecasters.

“I think that Democrats would have to slide even more from where they are now for these seats to be competitive,” said Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman.

The Cook Political Report’s Web site puts both districts as “Solid D” – the safest ranking the Democratic incumbents could hope to have. 

Pallone and Holt have faced difficult races in their careers, but have been largely unchallenged since members of the state’s delegation from both major parties got safer districts after the last redistricting at the beginning of the decade.    

“These seats would be outside possibilities under the pre-2002 lines. Redistricting has made both the 6th and the 12th very difficult for Republicans to reach, even in a year like 2010,” said Wasserman. “Yes its true Republicans have won in places that are that Democratic, when you look at Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts.  But Republicans are unlikely to recreate the same circumstances that allowed that to happen, since both Pallone and Holt are pretty strong incumbents.”

Wasserman said that the races may be worth watching if the Republicans really do pour a lot of money into them.  He estimates that it will take at least $2 million for each Republican to even begin to establish the necessary name recognition.

Neither race has so far made it into the Rothenberg Political Report’s ratings, though editor Stuart Rothenberg would not dismiss the possibility. 

“I think every cycle there are late breaking races because candidates through their particular appeal, through their message, through their financial resources turn a district that should be competitive, is not expected to be competitive, into a competitive one. That happens all the time,” said Rothenberg. “But those districts are significantly further down the list, it seems  to me, for Republican victories.”

Rothenberg said that Holt and Pallone would probably only be vulnerable in a year where Republicans won 50 to 70 seats.

“I wouldn’t say the primaries are for naught. I think they’re the first opportunity for the Republicans in this district to demonstrate their ability to create and sharpen messages,” he said. 

“I’m not telling you we won’t add them at some point.  It’s just that in these types of districts there’s a heavier burden on the Republican campaign to prove that the race is doable.”

Congressional Quarterly also ranks both districts as “Safe Democratic.”

The Republican-leaning district of U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) is a different story.  Both Cook and CQ rank it as Democratic-leaning, while Rothenberg puts it as Democratic favored.

Wasserman and Rothenberg both said that the fact that Republican Jon Runyan has won the support of the formidable Ocean County GOP will not move their ratings any more in his favor, even if Runyan gets to avoid a potentially costly race against a primary opponent backed by another major organization.

“There are bigger question marks in this race than the primary,” said Rothenberg. “How is Runyan going to do as a candidate?  I know how he can do as an offensive tackle, but how does he do as a candidate? “

Added Rothenberg: “It might have been better if he had a serious primary, since that would prove he could win a race and he would have some momentum.”

Wasserman said that Adler is likely worried about his reelection prospects, but is looking forward to the opportunity to engage Runyan in a debate.

“That’s a setting in which most Democrats think Adler can’t lose,” he said. “Runyan’s background is not politics.  For anyone who’s entering the game anew going up against a guy who’s pursued politics for more than two decades, you’re bound to make some mistakes.”