Retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-Mount Holly) never had a hard time defeating Democrats in the third congressional district. In fact, no Democrat has held the seat in 124 years.But Saxton isn’t on the ballot this year, leading Democrats to believe that voting trends over the 24 years of Saxton’s tenure no longer apply.
“You have to start with this premise: Jim Saxton won this district by 20 points in every election over the last several years. The district itself went Bush over Kerry 52-48% – that’s district-wide,” said Burlington County Democratic Chairman Rick Perr.
The Bush/Kerry numbers, Perr said, are more representative of the district’s true voting trends than the large margins that Saxton, who had become a known quantity and beloved incumbent, used to win by.
“That is the DNA of the district,” he said. “That’s where they vote when they deal with national issues aside from for some personality. So you erase a 20 point Saxton win.”
With 48 days to go before the race between Democratic state Sen. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) and Republican Medford Mayor Christopher Myers is decided, the great unknown is Perr’s county.
Cherry Hill – the one part of Camden County that’s in the district and the hometown of Adler – is expected to go vote Democratic by a large margin. The only question is how large. Likewise, the Ocean County portion of the district will almost certainly vote overwhelmingly for Myers, though there is some question as to how committed Republicans there are to the Burlington County native.
To win the district, analysts and insiders say, Adler has to come out of Cherry Hill with at least 10,000 votes and win Burlington County by a solid margin while trying to keep Myers’ victory in Ocean County down to less than 20%.
Myers, for his part, needs to pull off a margin of victory in Ocean County that’s at least half the size of Saxton’s past margins, while trying to at least keep Burlington County even.
Perr noted that even Myers’ own internal poll showed a close race, and that Democrats are off to a great start. Especially considering that Adler has a 10-1 monetary advantage over Myers.
Democrats think they have a great shot of taking Burlington County by turning out huge numbers in Willingboro – a town with a large African American population that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Perr called it a “sleeping giant,” with 17,000 registered voters who are amped up by Barack Obama. In 2004, the town turned out just over 14,000 votes – over 10,000 of which went to the virtually unfunded Assemblyman Herb Conaway. In the non-presidential year of 2006, it turned out 6,228 votes for Democrat Richard Sexton to Saxton’s 2,493.
“Burlington County is changing. It used to be pretty hard core republican, and the democrats have made a lot of inroads,” said Sexton, who got 41% of the vote against the similarly-named incumbent.
Sexton said the game has changed since two years ago, when he ran with little money against a long-term incumbent. He thinks that Adler will have a shot to compete or pull even in towns like Evesham, Mount Laurel, Moorestown and Pemberton.
Moreover, Sexton said, Adler should be able to at least siphon some Republican votes in some of Ocean County’s major towns, like Berkeley – where Adler has opened a campaign office – and Toms River, where Saxton beat Sexton by a 2-1 margin in 2006, and beat Conaway by a 3-1 margin in 2004.
“I think Toms River is the kind of town where you’ve got some good, honest seniors, blue collar workers, and lots of commuters to New York City who are ready to vote in their best interests,” said Sexton.
Perr and Sexton both believe that the Ocean County Republicans still haven’t gotten over the bruising primary between Myers and native son Jack Kelly, despite Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore’s claims to the contrary.
Gilmore could not be reached for comment, but Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton said that the drama is over.
“I’m not going to talk for him, but George Gilmore understands what it would meant to have a Democratic congressman in southern Ocean County. It’s a bad scenario for them,” said Layton. “The last thing he wants is a Democratic congressman organizing in southern Ocean County — trying to build Democratic organizations so he can win the election in two years.”
Layton acknowledged that Burlington County will be close, but held that the district is still Republican. Medford alone, he noted, will give Myers with at least 5,000 votes over Adler.
“It’s a Republican district. It voted for George Bush in 2004. Think about how bad George Bush was in that time period in these types of districts. This is a district that right now where the Republican brand is not as weak as it is in other areas of the country.”
Despite Democratic gains on a local level, Layton thinks that voters in towns like Evesham will see this election differently, and that Adler won’t pull even there. Even if Adler did particularly well in Burlington, Layton doesn’t think it will be enough to overcome Ocean County.
“The math doesn’t support a victory for Adler. It just doesn’t,” he said.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that Adler should look to get bigger margins in the Burlington County towns that straddle the Delaware River to offset the more Republican towns in the eastern part of the country.
But as of right now, Murray said, when you look at the big picture, no candidate has a clear advantage.
“I think you’ve got a pretty hard tossup as it stands right now,” he said.
Perhaps State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) could help Myers in some of those heavily Democratic river towns that she represents in Trenton. After all, she’s a Republican who has managed to hold on in a district with a large Democratic registration advantage, even if her coattails didn’t take Republican Assembly candidates with her last year.
But Allen is still enmeshed in a feud with the county’s Republican establishment. In fact, Myers not reached out to her since January, when she refused to make an endorsement in his primary against Kelly. For now, she’s focused on acting as a surrogate for John McCain and Sarah Palin.
Allen hasn’t even endorsed Myers in the general election.
“I’ve not made an endorsement in really anything except the presidential race,” she said.