Zeitz thinks he can ride the Democratic wave against Smith

With at least 200,000 newly registered Democrats appearing on the voter roles after this month’s primary, a new hope has arisen in Democrat Josh Zeitz’s campaign to unseat long-time incumbent Republican Chris Smith.

Zeitz estimates that 20,000 of those new Democrats will be in his district, which is comprised of four counties: Ocean, Burlington, Monmouth and Mercer. As of the last count, the district was made up of 17% Democrats, 22% Republicans, and 61% unaffiliated voters. Adding 20,000 new Democrats to the rolls will make party registration in the district roughly equal. Zeitz campaign manager Steve D’Amico added that the district is getting younger, with about 60% of the residents under 50.

“In this kind of atmosphere, in a year that Democrats are surging with these resources, party parity will make the difference. It provides the winning margin,” said Zeitz, 34.

But Smith says he’s heard this from opponents before. He heard it from Brian Hughes just after redistricting in 1992; and from Reed Gusciora, who promised to run an aggressive campaign in 2000. And now, Smith says, he represents the most heavily Republican district he’s had since entering the House in 1981.

“I wouldn’t want to sound like I’m ever dismissive of any candidate, but people have said almost if not identical things in the past,” said Smith.

Smith’s margins of victory have never shown much resemblance to the district’s party makeup. A moderate, pro-lifer who has held the seat since he was elected at the age of 27, he has consistently beaten his Democratic opponents by much larger margins than the disparities in party affiliation.

“I pull very heavily form the independents but also from the Democrats,” said Smith. “I’ve lost track of the number of times that people say that you’re the only republican I vote for. I hear it in every one of my towns, when I go to campaigning when I’m on business.”

In 2004, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the district by about 38,000 votes. Smith, on the other hand, beat Democrat Amy Vasquez by about 100,000 votes. In 2006, an all-around bad year for Republicans, Smith trampled Democrat Carole Gay, getting 60,000 more votes than she did.

Smith pointed out that Hamilton, the largest town in the district, has a 2-1 Democratic registration advantage. But Smith consistently carries the town by 65-70%.

He pointed to the large amount of legislation he produces as the main reason for his popularity, noting that he wrote the nation’s landmark law on autism after meeting with constituents Bobbie and Billy Gallagher.

“I really believe that consistency is recognized and acknowledged by the people, and we find in the polling that it’s not just support. There’s always a passion and a depth to it.”

But Zeitz said that three things make his campaign different than those of candidates’ past: they’re raising more money than ever before, he’s hired the best team of consultants in at least two decades and he’s putting together a serious ground game.

Since November, Zeitz has devoted himself full-time to his campaign, and has hired a full-time campaign manager and finance director. Starting next month, he plans an aggressive door-to-door campaign.

The reason that Smith has been able to consistently win elections, Zeitz said, is that he hasn’t had any serious money or resources thrown at him in a long time.

“When you look at his positions – legality of birth control, stem cell research, timely withdrawal form the war in Iraq, balancing the budget — he’s out of step,” he said. “The only missing ingredient has been our ability to raise the money to take him on.”

Zeitz raised $54,269 last quarter and has $82,766 on hand. Smith – no fundraising powerhouse – took in $236,447 for the quarter and has $405,006 on hand.

“We raised more money so far than the 2006 raised between April and November,” said Zeitz. “Money, consultants, ground game – these things make a difference.”

But while the district may have achieved party parity on paper, at least some of the newly registered Democrats were simply unaffiliated voters who voted Democratic in the general election anyway, said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. The party inductees just never had a reason to vote in any of the previous, uncompetitive primaries.

“There was also an increase for the Republicans too that he doesn’t point out, though it’s certainly not as big as the Democrats,” he said.

But, Murray added, Chris Smith’s fundraising has been pretty weak. Only one New Jersey Republican congressman, Scott Garrett, has less money in the bank. Although Smith beat Carole Gay by a huge margin in 2006, he only spent about $382,677 throughout the entire campaign.

Still, it will be tough for Zeitz to overcome.

“Unless the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) targets this district, he’ll reach a ceiling in fundraising that Chris Smith will be able to surpass,” said Murray.

D’Amico, Zeitz’s campaign manager, didn’t want to reveal his campaign’s fundraising goals, but said that they plan to shatter previous records.

“These folks don’t know Chris Smith as well as they think they do,” he said.

Zeitz thinks he can ride the Democratic wave against Smith