ARE NEW JERSEY’S GOP CONGRESSMEN IN JEOPARDY?

by David P. Rebovich 2005 was supposed to be the year that angry suburbanites in New Jersey would turn out to vote against the Democrats in Trenton. That, of course, did not happen. Now the question is whether 2006 will be the year that those same suburbanites decide to vote against the Republicans in Washington, D.C., and in doing so replace a GOP congressman or two in the Garden State. The fact that New Jersey’s congressional districts are drawn to be safe suggests that no changes will occur among the current lineup of seven Democrats and six Republican congressmen. But President George W. Bush’s low approval ratings, continued problems at home and abroad, and the disagreements that many New Jerseyans have with some of the President’s policy positions and decisions all seem to give the Democrats an opportunity to make spirited challenges in a few districts here. But ousting an incumbent New Jersey congressman is rare. The last incumbent representative to lose reelection here was Republican Michael Pappas in 1998. Pappas was a freshman in central Jersey’s 12th district who was a surprise winner of a three-person primary in 1996. A staunch conservative in a district that had become more yuppified and moderate, Pappas had a less than distinguished term and still received 47 percent of the vote in his failed reelected bid against Democratic newcomer Rush Holt. Since then the state’s incumbents have all been reelected, no matter what was happening at the top of the ticket. Al Gore beat Bush by 16 points in 2000, but his enormous landslide had no impact on the state’s House races. Last year, John Kerry carried New Jersey by a solid 7 points. But not only were all the incumbents reelected, none of the Republicans won by less than 15 points. The latter is an impressive figure, the kind that can discourage potentially strong candidates from challenging one of the state’s sitting congressmen in 2006. Of course, it’s normally difficult to be competitive against an incumbent congressman. They have big advantages – high name recognition, a record of helping the district and constituents, the ability to gain key endorsements and raise lots of money, and experience in campaigning. And as elsewhere, New Jersey’s districts are drawn to favor incumbents. They are stacked with voters who regularly support candidates from the incumbent’s party. But incumbents can and do lose. Freshmen congressmen who have been swept into office on the coattails of a popular presidential or senate candidates are often vulnerable when two years later they have to run on their own. In other cases, factors such as old-age, scandal, laziness, changes in a district’s demography, wedge issues, or a charismatic or well-financed challenger can lead to an incumbent’s demise. Will any of these factors be relevant in 2006 in New Jersey’s thirteen House races? Well, it’s a sure bet that like their counterparts across the country, Democrats in New Jersey will try to capitalize on President Bush’s low approval ratings, concerns about the war in Iraq, his unpopular budget and social policies, and his controversial nominations to the Supreme Court. While incumbent Republican congressmen may be personally popular in their districts, Democrats will try to nationalize the races and argue that New Jerseyans need to send a message to the White House. That message is that New Jersey rejects many of the President’s policies and, that despite their respect and affection for their own representatives, voters here need to reject incumbent congressmen who have supported those policies. If the President’s poll numbers here continue to remain low – his approval ratings nationally and in New Jersey are below 40 percent -, Democrats will also claim that their party stands a real chance of gaining a majority in the House and thus of preventing the GOP from pursuing policies that are not popular in New Jersey or beneficial to many of its residents. This fall the Corzine campaign ran an effective ad that called Doug Forrester George W. Bush’s choice for governor. It closed by asking New Jerseyans, “Is he your choice?” Don’t be surprised if that ad serves as a template for Democratic challengers in the fall 2006 congressional races who will try to make the case that Republican congressmen are simply ratifying the President’s proposals. Democratic ads will no doubt include a list of the President’s policy positions that individual Republican congressmen have supported. These lists will likely include the war on Iraq, deficit spending, tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental deregulation, social security reform, the allocation of homeland security funds and education and transportation aid, embryonic stem cell research, and the President’s nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, Having to explain their votes and their views on these issues may not be pleasant for some incumbent congressmen. And by focusing on these issues, Democratic congressional candidates may be able to attract more people to the polls and swing some unaffiliated voters to their side next November. For this scenario to play out, several factors have to fall in place. One is that President Bush’s approval ratings need to remain low. Another is that the President neglects to address growing concerns about the war in Iraq. Then the Democrats here have to recruit some strong congressional candidates and raise the money necessary to run a media campaign that puts Republicans on the defensive. In addition, the Democrats need a quality replacement for Jon Corzine in the U.S. Senate, someone who can carry the banner in the fall campaign and attract not only the party base but also unaffiliated folks to the polls in large numbers. Support from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, financial and organizational, would be especially helpful if a Democratic challenger looks like he or she is in striking distance of the GOP incumbent. Of course all of this assumes that New Jersey’s Republican congressmen will not smell the coffee and realize that their political survival requires them to be responsive to their constituents, even if that means disagreeing with the President.. This year incumbent Democratic assemblypersons in competitive districts emphasized how they had bucked their party’s leaders on key issues – ethics and property tax reform – important to voters. Don’t be surprised if we see New Jersey’s Republican congressmen, already a pretty independent bunch, going their own way, and not the White House’s, more often in 2006. That may be the best way to keep themselves and their party in power. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

ARE NEW JERSEY’S GOP CONGRESSMEN IN JEOPARDY?