Anyone who watched NJN on election night witnessed it: Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood), who had been the favorite in the 7th District House race, choking back tears as she attempted to explain — and no doubt understand — why she lost to state Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Flemington).
It was a particularly bruising moment for Stender, who two years earlier had come within one point of ousting incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-Warren Twp).
"It was really a crushing defeat for me," Stender said today.
It was also a huge political comeback for Lance, who was seen by fellow Republicans during his time as Senate Minority Leader as not partisan or aggressive enough. Facing a potential challenge for that post last year by state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), Lance withdrew to become the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Six weeks after her loss, Stender is making the best of it, relishing her first holiday season in the last two election cycles during which she does not have to focus on raising money.
Today, Stender sought to dispel the notion that her campaign failed in large part because of internal divisions and pressure from outside groups to take on out-of-state staff and focus on less pertinent issues like birth control.
"That stuff is nonsense. It's concocting drama in the aftermath," said Stender, referring to contentions that EMILY's List officials had pressured her to put Washington, DC-based staffers in control of the campaign.
While Stender acknowledged that there was tension between her Garden State staffers and those brought in from Washington, she did not consider it a decisive factor. She pointed out that her narrow loss last year was often blamed on the fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) offered too little help, too late.
"Last year the post-mortem was that I lost because I didn't have help from DC. This year I did and the post-mortem is that's the reason I lost," she said.
Instead, she said, the defeat could be chalked up to a combination of factors.
Lance, a social moderate, was not affected by the same issues that almost proved lethal for Ferguson like stem cell research and abortion.
"The other thing I would say was that people were really done with George Bush – he was irrelevant by the end," said Stender.
Moreover, Stender said, her turnout projections were overly optimistic, and although he narrowly won the district, Barack Obama's coattails turned out to be non-existent. Roughly 25,000 voters pushing the button for Obama and left booth without voting down-ticket (Obama won the district by about 4,000 votes, but incumbent U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) – next down from Obama on the ticket — lost the district to Dick Zimmer, another Hunterdon County native).
And, as is traditionally the case, Lance's native Hunterdon County had high turnout – about 81%.
Going into the final stretch, Stender said that both her own campaign's internal poll's and a poll from the DCCC showed the race as a dead heat.
More than anything, however, was the fact that the district was drawn to remain safely in Republican hands.
"The other factor was we always knew that there were a high number of undecided voters," she said. "In the end, the way I look at it and explain it is Leonard Lance was moderate on some social issues so there wasn't enough of a distinction between the two of us, and the undecided voters broke Republican in this Republican district. They went home and the district performed the way the district was drawn."
One Democratic official from Union County said that the campaign underestimated Lance's support among his own county's Democrats, many of whom voted for Stender in 2006 but went for Lance this year.
Other Democrats expressed reservations about the Stender campaign, however, both pre and post-election.
One Democratic insider who had a role in the campaign said that many of the negative attacks on Lance played to his strengths.
The campaign's criticism of Lance for voting against a bill that required pharmacists to fill prescriptions for The Morning After Pill highlighted the fact that he was pro-choice in most other respects.
A DCCC flyer speciously implying that Lance was in cahoots with former Gov. Christie Whitman on pension bonding gave Lance an opportunity to highlight his lawsuit against the practice, and to tout his ballot question banning borrowing without voter approval. Compounding that, the Stender campaign publicly criticized conservative Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine on a technical point, arguing that the campaign had no control over the DCCC's message. That only highlighted the issue again.
And when the DCCC sent out a flyer criticizing a Lance vote regarding drinking water, environmental leaders rushed to his defense, highlighting what local Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel called Lance's "excellent" environmental record.
"You have the DCCC making these decisions on choice, the environment. It's almost deciding what their strategy and attack will be before getting the research to back it up," said the insider.
Ultimately, those attacks backfired in the press. Editorial writers not only endorsed Lance, but sometimes beat up on Stender. Lance, in turn, used those editorials in campaign advertisements, and credited them with giving his campaign a late boost.
Union county political consultant Pat Politano, who worked on Stender's 2006 campaign but not the 2008 one, said that the DC-based groups had made similar mistakes in the district in 2000, when they worked on behalf of former Fanwood Mayor Maryanne Connelly's second congressional campaign — against Ferguson.
“If the Washington way worked in that district, Maryanne Connelly would be the Congresswoman," he said.
What Stender and most other Democrats all seem to agree on, however, is that she would have easily beaten Ferguson had he not retired.
Stender said that she wishes Lance well, although she thinks he may wind up in a tough spot if the Republican Party moves to the right. And in the end, although she didn't win, Stender said she was part of a movement that she is proud of.
"In large measure my motivation was because I was so furious and appalled at what the Bush Administration had done to this country and what the Republican Party was doing to us," she said. "Ultimately I will be able to reflect on the fact that I participated in the process and was able to be part of making sure they couldn't continue. The fact of the matter is Bush is gone, Obama's going to be a great president, and the right wing ideology has been marginalized and diminished."