Running against the odds

This election season, there are hotly contested races in the 3rd and 7th Congressional Districts. Then, one tier down, there are a couple of races in which challengers have some inkling of hope against a well-entrenched incumbent and may count on a bit of national party support.

And then there are the challengers to whom national parties don’t even bother paying lip service, like Tom Wyka in the 11th District, Vince Micco in the 9th District and Robert McLeod in the 6th District, among others.

Wyka, a 42-year-old IT project manager is running as the Democratic candidate against Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Morristown), a Congressman whose family members have held elected office since the founding of the country. Frelinghuysen’s tight grip on the office attracted the attention of liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who in 2000 fielded a ficus tree against him, along with about 20 other Congressmen.

It is Wyka’s second go at Frelinghuysen. In 2006, he got 37% of the vote to Frelinghuysen’s 62%, which is more than any other challenger has gotten against Frelinghuysen since he entered Congress in 1994.

 

So why bother running again?

“I don’t know how many parents have taken their kids to the soccer field in the morning and said ‘You know, Johnny, these guys whipped you pretty bad last time. Why don’t we go home and watch cartoons?’” asked Wyka. “You’ve got to have the guts to do it.”

So far, Wyka has raised just under $39,000 and has a little over $15,000 on hand, and he hopes to bring his campaign war chest up to the six figures.

Wyka said that, although his district is typically thought of as extremely wealthy, his message on more efficient government, health care and education will appeal to the district’s overlooked middle management types and blue collar workers. He accuses Frelinghuysen of kowtowing to the millionaires who populate his district, but are still, of course, in the minority.

“I’m not one of those ghost candidates who sticks their name on the ballot and throws their name on the sign. I am getting out there and getting in his face on the issues,” he said.

Still, Wyka admits that he’s not totally satisfied with his effort yet.

“I will admit myself that we have not made the effort that we could and we do need to ramp up that effort to reaching out to as many people as possible,” he said.

Wyka isn’t alone. Twelve out of 13 congressional districts in New Jersey are nominally being contested this year, even if some of the challengers might not be much more than a name on the ballot. Only Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark) got off without even a token challenger.

In District 9, Iraq War veteran Vince Micco, a 36-year-old insurance broker, is challenging Rep. Steve Rothman, who’s riding high on the Obama wave.

Micco ran in 2006 and was crushed, getting just 28% of the vote against Rothman (the least of any of his previous challengers).

But Micco sees his run in the same light as he sees his military service: as “a sense of duty.”

“In such a district, if I was going to just run one time and walk away it would be a waste of my time,” Micco said. “I think that I’m looking at a much better year – a presidential year – to run for the seat.”

Micco knows the odds are against him. But he’s planting the seeds of a future candidacy, hoping that eventually he won’t be running against a six-term incumbent with $1.8 million in the bank.

“If I keep at it and can keep moving the ball forward,” he said.

In the 6th District, former Judge Robert McLeod, a Republican, plans to spend almost nothing against Rep. Frank Pallone – a few thousands dollars tops, he said, mostly from himself and a few friends. And, he actually had to beat out two other Republican primary candidates for the privilege.

That’s not likely to go very far against Pallone, who had $3.4 million in the bank as of the last reported fundraising quarter. But like Micco, McLeod sees his run as “duty” because he sees Pallone’s record as out-of-step with his district’s voters.

“It’s a quixotic adventure, but the simple fact of the matter is Pallone doesn’t represent his district,” he said. “To call him a representative is misleading.”

Running against the odds