HAMILTON – At a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in New York City on Thursday, Michelle Obama asked 4th Congressional District challenger Josh Zeitz if he thinks New Jersey will be a battleground for her husband.
Zeitz told the first lady prospect that New Jersey is safely Democratic territory. Then he added something specific about his own challenge of entrenched U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4).
"I told Michelle Obama we’re going to work hard, and yes, we’re going to win that race," he said of his longshot bid to upend the veteran Smith and help give Obama a solid majority in Congress.
As they listened to the story, a small crowd clapped in Zeitz’s Hamilton campaign headquarters, which the candidate opened today on South Olden Avenue, a few blocks from the congressman’s house.
"We must win Hamilton," said Zeitz, a Trenton-born history professor and author.
"They say Chris Smith can’t be beaten in his own backyard – that last statement is of course, disputable – but we’re going to prove them wrong," he said.
The laughter-prompting dig referred to news reports that Smith doesn’t spend much time in the congressional district, which sprawls across portions of four counties – Ocean, Monmouth, Mercer and Burlington.
Smith’s hometown of Hamilton is the municipality with the largest number of registered voters at 50,150: 17,658 Democrats and 9,849 Republicans, with fierce independents numbering 22,643. Brick Township’s the second biggest nest of votes in the 4th with 42,582, or 11,163 Republicans, 9,745 Democrats and 21,674 independents.
A progressive Democrat, Zeitz told the crowd packed into the former postal office space that his campaign would open another headquarters in Brick and a third in his hometown of Bordentown.
"This seat is on the map now, and two ingredients are required: money and shoe leather," added Zeitz, urging people to volunteer to do door-to-door and other campaign-related tasks while he keeps making the fund-raising phone calls.
In the crowd stood Mercer County Democratic Chairman Richard McClellan, who earlier in the morning was among 90 people who attended an Obama field organizing event in Ewing. The smiling McClellan admitted he’s enjoying the buildup to what he believes will be a Democratic year. He says he’s particularly excited about this race.
"Last year, we had 50,000 registered Democrats in Mercer," McClellan said. "Now we have almost 80,000 in Mercer County You figure half of them are in Josh’s district. The governor’s talking him up, talking about getting money into this race, and we’re excited about it."
John Cimino, a Democratic candidate for freeholder, agreed that Zeitz is bound to get a bump from Obamaland.
"This is the first time that I can remember this kind of excitement for change, and I’ve got to feel it’s going to sweep in here," Cimino said.
In attendance at the opener was Frank Hanson, a recent Steinert High School grad and student organizer for Obama, who has been building Hamilton-based support for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee since well before the Democratic Primary in New Jersey. Zeitz said he also wants to coordinate with Trenton-based Obama organizers; and in Ocean, his campaign is already hooked into the grassroots organizing of Ocean County Freeholder candidate Stacy Lubrecht, an Obama backer.
Presidential politics notwithstanding, the good feeling for Zeitz in the face of the tough and some say overwhelming task of taking down Smith, comes largely from the work the candidate has done himself over the last ten months, according to his supporters.
Freeholder Dan Benson, a former Hamilton Township party chair, said, "Josh has had three milestones in this campaign I haven’t seen a (Democratic) candidate hit in a long time. First, he got the mainstream press to publicize the fact that Chris Smith spends no time in this district. Second, Josh has been able to bring large numbers of volunteers to make his presence felt. And third, he’s raised money."
The Zeitz Campaign says to date that they have raised well over $200,000 to take on Smith.
At the Thursday night Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, Chairman Howard Dean called Zeitz’s bid against Smith a "winnable and imperative race."