Vasquez wants another crack at Chris Smith

With 10 months to go before the Democratic congressional primary, Amy Vasquez has announced that she’s running for congress in the fourth district, again.

There wasn’t any fanfare in Vasquez’s announcement. Rather, it came in the form of a press release criticizing Republican incumbent Chris Smith for his vote against a bill that renewed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program with “Amy Vasquez for Congress” written in the address heading.

Vasquez, a child advocate attorney, also ran against Smith in 2004, losing by a margin of about 100,000 votes. She joins Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who ran against Smith in 2000, as a potential challenger to the 14-term congressman. But despite her crushing defeat three years ago, Vasquez said that she’s in a better position to take on Smith than she was then.

“I was just entering the political process as a candidate at the time. With that campaign I gained a lot of name recognition and respect among members of my own party,” said Vasquez, who also lost a Burlington County Freeholder race in 2005.

Any campaign against Smith is a long shot. The fourth district is Republican enough that Bush managed to win there during both of his elections. And last year, in an overall hostile year for Republicans, Smith had the highest reelection margin of any Republican congressman in the state. Smith has won his last 10 elections without his Democratic opponent breaking 35 percent.

While Smith is pro-life and has voted along party lines on the Iraq war, of he adheres to his party’s platform the least of all New Jersey congressmen, voting with Republicans 74.2 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post. Not to mention that he’s from Hamilton, one of the district’s largest voting blocs.

While President Bush’s popularity in New Jersey may be at its nadir, tying Smith with the unpopular aspects of his party may not resonate with local voters, said David Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“He’s the consummate district-oriented congressman who happens to be pro-life, so a lot of these ideological attacks by democrats go right by voters who say ‘what are you talking about,’” said Rebovich, who lives in Smith’s district.

But Smith has recently taken heat for his party-line stance on the Iraq war, with an organized protest showing up at his office last Tuesday to confront him about it. Smith has said that he favors an ultimate withdrawal of troops but not a timetable. While no candidate has recently come close to beating Smith, Democrats are hoping to use the war as an albatross to bring attention to his other conservative votes.

“His voting record makes him vulnerable. It just needs to be communicated to the public what exactly is happening in Washington,” said Vasquez.

In the case of Vasquez’s press release, his latest vulnerability is a vote against a bill that renewed SCHIP – something that Democrats can use to clearly tie him to a President who’s vastly unpopular in New Jersey, most likely even in a district that he carried three years ago.

“Smith stood with President Bush, who states he will veto the bill,” said Vasquez.

Although Gusciora, who came a little closer to Smith in 2000 than Vasquez did in 2004, hasn’t ruled out seeking the seat again, he welcomed Vasquez into the fold.

“Amy is a very credible candidate, and she would certainly be leaps and bounds ahead of the incumbent in terms of stand on the Iraq war, or environmental issues,” said Gusciora, who noted that Smith voted for many issues that New Jersey voters have come to loathe, like the original Iraq war resolution and the Clinton impeachment resolution back in 1998. “The more people that learn about Chris the more they might believe we should have change in Washington.”

But Smith spokeswoman Mary Noonan said that the congressman’s vote against SCHIP was due to a cut in Medicare that was included in the bill, and that afterwards he voted for a motion to recommit and keep the SCHIP program going. Smith is not worried about Iraq as a vulnerability, Noonan said, since his last challenger, Carol Gay, made it a central campaign theme and was still easily defeated.

Noonan added that no matter how bad things look for the Republican Party, Smith’s attachment to his constituents remains strong.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in the Whitehouse. He’ll stay consistent,” said Noonan.

Vasquez wants another crack at Chris Smith