Adler vs. Saxton has potential for a great race

There’s been a lot of speculation about State Sen. John Adler running for Congress, so his announcement today that he was filing a campaign committee didn’t startle his opponent.

“It’s early, but there have been signs he was going to run. We are not surprised,” said a statement Rep. Jim Saxton, who declined to offer any other comment.

Adler’s decision to run for Congress means that Democrats are launching their first serious challenge to U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton since Susan Bass Levin ran against him in 2000, spending over $1 million but losing by a margin of 57-42 percent. In 2006, a bad year from the GOP nationally and in New Jersey, Saxton beat the low-budget campaign of newcomer Richard Sexton by an even wider margin.

Adler, who has considerable clout as the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, is likely to be a credible, hard working candidate with a lot of money behind him But he faces a tough battle against the entrenched twelve-term incumbent, said David Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“It’s an uphill battle for Adler, since Saxton is really a very interesting, shrewd political figure much like Chris Smith is,” said Rebovich. “He has succeeded in appealing to key constituent groups in that district: veterans, senior citizens, even environmentalists.”

"Not since Watergate have the Republicans been this low in national public opinion polls — and in New Jersey, Republicans are held in even lower esteem than the national average," said Steve Ayscue, a Democratic strategist. "If things stay the course, Democrats can expect to make gains in the U.S. House by as many as 20 seats or more next year. It certainly helps that the national Democrats have been busy recruiting top-notch talent to run for Senate and House seats — candidates who can raise substantial money independent of the leadership."

Ayscue continued: "I've never seen this much attention from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on New Jersey races, including the 3rd District — perhaps because this district is strikingly similar, demographically, to Congressman Patrick Murphy's 'swing' district in suburban Pennsylvania. The last time Senator Adler ran for this seat it was 1990 and a very difficult political environment for Democrats. This time around I expect Senator Adler to run a highly effective campaign to prove the need for change, but given Saxton's lock-step support of the failed Bush-Rove agenda he will make the case for Adler even easier."

The Democrats’ strategy so far has been to tie Saxton to the Bush administration as often as possible. Today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement criticizing Saxton for not opposing President Bush’s threatened veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Democrats also believe that the South Jersey is ever so gradually turning blue, and point to local gains in towns like Evesham as evidence. Democrats won a race for Burlington County Surrogate last year, and are mounting a competitive campaign in the normally Republican 8th legislative district this year. And in Toms River, the largest municipality in the district, Richard Strada, who won 33% against Saxton in 2002, stands a good chance at being elected Mayor.

Saxton joins Reps. Mike Ferguson and Frank LoBiondo as the Democrats’ top three congressional targets in New Jersey. Ferguson won by just one percent last year.

“We believe that Jim Saxton is very vulnerable,” said DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James. “He no longer represents the families in his district that he’s out of touch with the families in his district and is continuing down the same old stay the course road in Iraq with President Bush.”

But national Republicans said that the any campaign against Saxton was merely “smoke and mirrors.” Democrats, wary of all the seats they gained last year in traditionally Republican districts, are trying to create the impression of competitive races where they don’t really exist.

“You look at the playing field and they have a lot of defense to play, so of course they throw darts at a map and call them targets when they aren’t in fact,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley. “Saxton has a record of delivering in the district and has been a good congressman.”

Adler, a 48-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, served as a Cherry Hill Councilman before challenging Saxton in 1990. In 1991, perhaps one of the strongest Republican years in modern state political history, Adler ousted four-term State Sen. Lee Laskin.

The 63-year-old Saxton, who beat Democratic Assemblyman John Sweeney in 1975 and went to the State Senate six years later, was elected to Congress in 1984 following the death of Edwin Forsythe. The Republican leadership passed him over for Chairman of the House Resources Committee in 2005; he is now in line to become the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee if he is re-elected next year.

Adler vs. Saxton has potential for a great race