Who will challenge LoBiondo? Van Drew says it won’t be him

Two competitive races for the U.S. House of Representatives are shaping up in New Jersey, where State Sen. John Adler is challenging 12-term Rep. Jim Saxton, and Assemblywoman Linda Stender is seeking a rematch against Rep. Mike Fergsuon in a contest that was decided by just one percentage point last year.

That’s two out of the three races that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says they plan to target in New Jersey. But in the second district, where Democrats keep saying Rep. Frank LoBiondo is vulnerable, no clear candidate has emerged to take him on.

The most prominent name in the running has been Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew, who’s currently enmeshed in a tight state Senate campaign GOP Republican incumbent Nicholas Asselta. Democrats insist that a Van Drew victory for state Senate in district one, along with a win by Jim Whelan in the neighboring second district, would be a bad omen for LoBiondo. It could even give the Democrats the momentum they need to move Van Drew up to Congress, they say.

Van Drew, the Cape May Democrat who tops most short lists of potential LoBiondo rivals, isn’t going to run in 2008, according to his campaign manager.

“He’s not running for Congress. He’s got way too much on his plate right now,” said Allison Murphy, who is managing Van Drew’s campaign to oust Asselta. “I can safely say he’s not running next year, but maybe sometime soon.”

But some political observers, like David P. Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, aren’t buying that explanation. For Van Drew to even hint at a congressional run would put his campaign against Asselta in jeopardy. The same goes for Assemblyman James Whelan, a former Atlantic City Mayor who is challenging GOP State Sen. James “Sonny” McCullough this fall. A potentially strong contender who has already said that he doesn’t intend to seek the seat, Whelan won’t completely rule it out.

“If you’re Van Drew’s people, you can’t even give a hint that he’s interested in running for congress, because then Asselta’s people can say he’s a self-promoter,” said Rebovich.

If the Democrats really do put up a serious fight against LoBiondo, they’re going to need serious money. With $1.5 million in the bank, LoBiondo has a bigger war chest than any Republican in the New Jersey congressional delegation. Aside from his natural advantage of incumbency, even Democrats admit that LoBiondo has earned a strong reputation for constituent services.

Instead, just like with their other two congressional targets, Democrats have already begun to tie LoBiondo to President Bush, whose popularity in this state has dropped to levels akin to Richard Nixon in 1974. That year, Charles Sandman, the 1973 Republican candidate for Governor, lost his bid for re-election.

“There’s no doubt that Congressman LoBiondo is vulnerable in ways he’s never been in the past, and there are a good number of high quality Democratic colleagues who will be capable of defeating him,” said Democratic State Committee spokesman Rich McGrath. “But right now the legislative elections are on the immediate horizon and that’s where our focus and resources are right now.”

McGrath added that the fact that the seats considered in play for 2008 are all held by Republicans means that the political landscape has shifted in Democrats’ favor.

Still, it’s a tall order, especially considering that since his taking office in 1995, LoBiondo has not dipped below 60 percent in any of his reelection campaigns. National Republican Congressional Committee Spokeswoman Julie Shutley pointed out that, even in 2006, a toxic year for Republicans, LoBiondo pulled off a 27 point victory.

Rutgers Political Science Professor Ross K. Baker, author of House and Senate, said that the odds of any Democrat defeating LoBiondo are slim.

“It’s brand name recognition. He’s been a very effective advocate for the district, and was able, particularly under the republicans to deliver a fair amount of that district,” said Baker. “I think that even though the national trends may be unfavorable to republicans, ones like Frank LoBiondo can really ride out the storm.”

Several names emerge besides Van Drew and Whelan as potential LoBiondo challengers. One is former Prosecutor Bill Hughes, Jr., whose father ousted Sandman in 1974 and held the seat for twenty years. In 1992, Hughes, Sr. beat back a challenge by LoBiondo, only to retire at the end of that term.

“I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely out of the question, but right now I have a family and law practice I have to concentrate on,” said Hughes, who came within a few hundred votes of beating State Sen. James Cafiero in 2001. “You never want to say never.”

There’s also former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Pat Croce, Freeholder and Cumberland County Democratic Chairman Louis Magazzu, Atlantic County Freeholder Alisa Cooper, and Paul D’Amato, a former Republican Assemblyman who switched parties two years ago.

Magazzu, who lost a 1994 campaign against LoBiondo for the seat by thity points, said it was highly unlikely he would run again, as he’s more interested in becoming President of the National Association of Counties. But he expressed optimism about the chances of defeating LoBiondo in 2008.

Magazzu noted that LoBiondo signed a pledge to limit him to six terms in 1994, but reneged in 2003.

“He’s just not the same person that he was when he first ran, and I think he’s out of touch with the people in the district. There’s a saying that some people have gone Hollywood. Well, I think he’s gone Washington,” said Magazzu. “So a credible, well-funded opponent will have a shot.”

LoBiondo could not be reached for comment. Who will challenge LoBiondo? Van Drew says it won’t be him