Leonard Lance is infatuated with Robert Martin, but can Shirley Turner lose?

Is Shirley Turner really in trouble, or did someone just spin Joe Donohue? In a review of competitive State Senate

Is Shirley Turner really in trouble, or did someone just spin Joe Donohue? In a review of competitive State Senate races for the upcoming mid-term elections, The Star-Ledger listed the 15th district as one of the in-play seats that the GOP needs to win to take control of the Senate.

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Republican newcomer Robert Martin is self-financing his race against Turner, and Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance has become infatuated with his candidacy. Martin has done some early mail and cable TV ads, and GOP insiders say he plans to spend a few hundred thousand dollars.

But the 15th leans heavily to the Democratic side — the GOP hasn't won here in fourteen years — and it's a tough lift to expect a pickup in this district. Turner isn't terribly unpopular, and there is no hint of scandal — although her brother, former Morris County Democratic Chairman William Kersey, has taken some heat for high living at taxpayer expense as a member of the Morris County Board of Taxation.

Turner was part of a group of Democrats who came on the scene after Republicans won strong Democratic districts in the 1991 anti-Florio tide. A former Mercer County Freeholder, she won an Assembly seat in 1993, when Republican John Hartmann, a surprise winner in '91, lost his bid for re-election. She moved up to the Senate in 1997, beating incumbent Richard LaRossa (who unexpectedly ousted incumbent Gerald Stockman in 1991) by a 53%-47% margin. She was re-elected in 2001 by a 69%-29% margin over Norbert Donelly, who ran when Republican incumbent William Schluter, who was redistricted into the 15th, declined to run again (he left the GOP and mounted an Independent bid for Governor.). Turner won a third term in 2003, defeating former Mercer County Freeholder Calvin Iszard by a 67%-33% margin.

Turner has won every town in her district in each of the last two elections. John Kerry won 70% of the vote in the 15th, and Jon Corzine and Bob Menendez carried the district by 2-1 margins. The district, which includes the City of Trenton, has just one Republican Mayor.

On paper, Martin is a excellent candidate — he has his own money, strong community credentials, and no public record to attack. He has a clear fire in his political belly, and is willing to work hard. He's exactly the type of candidate his consultant, Larry Weitzner, likes. But is he more likely to be a Senator than Shelley Lovett, Richard Dennison, Francis Bodine, John Villapiano, Seema Singh, Gina Genovese, Mike Guarino or Joe Ariyan?

The roadmap for a Republican majority in the State Senate is especially tough. Just to get to nineteen seats, they need to hold GOP seats in the first and second districts, where polls on both sides have Nicholas Asselta and James "Sonny" McCullough trailing; they need to hold the open seats in the 8th, 11th and 14th disticts, where Phil Haines, Sean Kean and Bill Baroni appear to be ahead; they need to hold the 39th district, where Gerald Cardinale faces a well-financed challenger, and they need to win in the 12th district, where Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck is challenging Democratic State Senator Ellen Karcher. After that, they need to pick up one more seat for a 20-21 split and two more seats to win a majority. If Democrat Joseph Coniglio, reportedly the target of a federal corruption investigation, remains in the race, Republican Robert Colletti could take the Democrat-leaning 38th district seat.

But let's say the GOP does all that — they hold all their seats, and they beat Karcher and Coniglio. Is Turner really the the most vulnerable of the remaining Democratic seats? Or do the Republicans have a better chance with Lovett, a Councilwoman in the largest town in the fourth district, for the seat Democrat Frederick Madden won by 63 votes over Republlican George Geist in the last election four years ago.

Leonard Lance is infatuated with Robert Martin, but can Shirley Turner lose?