Republicans face tough odds in a once close district

The 2003 fourth district state Senate race was the most expensive in state history, with Democrat Fred Madden’s campaign spending millions to unseat incumbent Republican George Geist.

This year’s race is not likely to be a repeat.

Although Madden beat Geist by a razor thin margin of 63 votes back in 2003, Republicans have struggled to come up with a candidate to challenge the freshman senator in a rematch, and have mustered virtually no money. Now the Republicans’ new candidate, Gloucester County Councilwoman Shelley Lovett, finds herself at the helm of a long-shot ticket.

Just because the Republicans are broke, however, does not mean that they won’t fight.

“I think the difference with us is it is going to have to be a truly grassroots effort,” said Lovett, who is putting herself on a strict regiment of door-to-door appeals and attending public functions. “Why should anybody, especially in the fourth district, run unopposed because there’s not enough money? I just think it’s wrong.”

Just how the Republicans ended up in this spot is somewhat complicated. The GOP originally intended to run Gloucester Township Councilman Dan Hutchison for the state Senate seat, but he ultimately decided not to, saying he respected Madden too much to wage a campaign against him (months later he changed his party affiliation to Democratic).

“He left us holding the bag,” said Camden County GOP Chair Rick DeMichele.

So former Gloucester Township GOP Chairman John Jankowski wound up taking the spot, although mainly as a placeholder, said DeMichele. After Jankowski officially dropped out last week, Lovett, who was already on the ticket as an Assembly candidate, was tapped to go for the Senate position.

Lovett is joined on the ticket by Patricia Fraticiolli and Agnes Gardiner, a former Washington Township councilwoman who was just tapped to take Lovett’s Assembly bid. The shakeup shouldn’t hurt the ticket, Lovett said, because the real campaigning starts after labor day.

“I feel what do I have to lose? I’m running with two other great women who are in the same position I am, and I just think it’s a great opportunity to get your message out there, go up against the machine,” said Lovett. “Basically I think people are tired of the Camden County Machine running their townships,” said Lovett.

Among Lovett’s pet causes are reducing property taxes, creating a new school funding formula and more open space. She’s sounding a theme against the Camden County Machine, which she says exercises too much control in the region.

Since Gardiner joined the ticket, the fourth district Republicans have one unique thing going for the ticket: it’s the only all-female slate in this election cycle.

“Each one of these women is incredibly strong and viable in their own right. We’re hopeful when we put them all together that we’ll be able to get enough traction in the press….. It’s just a question of whether we can shine enough light on these candidates and put them in the public eye,” said DeMichele, the Camden County Republican Chair.

DeMichele said that he plans to meet with GOP State Chair Tom Wilson later this week to talk about drumming up some funding for the candidates. But in addition to a huge fundraising advantage, Democrats have a nearly 2-1 registration advantage in the district, although more than half of registered voters there are not affiliated with either party.

Madden, who says he shuns the limelight, might be hard to paint as a tool of a political machine. As a career cop before he ran for state Senate, is not known as a politician beholden to bosses.

“He certainly does not come across as a conventional politician, and I think people in New Jersey generally and in that district appreciate that,” said David Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.

Freshman legislators are typically more vulnerable than veterans, said Rebovich. But in his nearly four years in the office, Madden has yet to show much vulnerability. And while Madden had no cash-on-hand as of the last ELEC report, nobody doubts that his campaign will be well-funded.

Hutchison, the former Republican who almost ran against Madden, said he will actively campaign for the Democrat. The Republicans never took this race seriously, said Hutchison, but rather considered it a way to force Democrats to spend money there instead of the more competitive races in the first and second districts.

“They wanted to keep the senator in the party and the fourth district honest, so to speak, so if we made them spend money here they’d probably win so they can send it to Atlantic County,” said Hutchison.

Madden, for his part, said he agrees with Lovett on taxes, school funding reform and open space. He added that he’s been one of the Democratic Party’s most fiscally conservative Senators, and is particularly proud of his health care record. But his biggest achievement, he said, is constituent services – something that does not mesh particularly well with the image of a machine candidate.

“Anybody can walk into either of the district offices down here and feel that they got best service that any governmental agency can provide," said Madden.

Matt Friedman can be reached at Republicans face tough odds in a once close district