Going into Election Year 2010, the outlook is hopeful for Republicans nationally. The victories of Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie in Virginia and New Jersey respectively may well be a prelude to a sizable gain for Republicans in gubernatorial races nationally. In the Senate races, Republicans will more than likely achieve a net gain at best of several seats. In the House of Representatives, Republicans will be targeting those seats that traditionally had Republican representation but went Democratic for the first time in 2008.
The most difficult of these House seats for Republicans to recapture, however, may be the Third District in New Jersey. Representative John Adler is pursuing a shrewd two-component reelection strategy of 1) voting for legislation reflecting policies similar to those advocated by his popular Republican predecessor, Jim Saxton; and 2) separating himself when he needs to from unpopular policies of the Chief Executive, President Barack Obama. Nothing exemplifies more the latter reelection component than Adler’s recent vote against Obama’s healthcare package.
This is not the first time Adler adeptly separated himself from policies of an unpopular incumbent chief executive. In 1992, his first year as a New Jersey State Senator, Adler voted for the successful Republican effort to roll back the Florio sales tax increase, reducing the seven percent rate back to six percent.
Jim Florio was a very unpopular Governor at that time, and Adler was determined to retain the Senate seat he had captured from Republican Lee Laskin in 1991. By voting with the Republican Senate majority on the sales tax reduction, Adler immediately placed distance between himself and Florio. So when I heard that Adler had voted against ObamaCare, I thought immediately of the famous Yogi Berra saying, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
His 1991 victory over Laskin displayed Adler’s skill in making use of the state-of-the art in campaign technology. In that race, Adler became the first legislative candidate in New Jersey history to advertise on network television. The timing of the first commercial, a negative advertisement against Laskin fortuitously appeared immediately after Kirby Puckett hit the home run that won Game Six of the World Series for the Minnesota Twins against the Atlanta Braves. In a year where the anti-Florio tax revolt resulted in the Republicans attaining veto-proof majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, Adler was the only Democrat to defeat an incumbent Republican legislator.
I have been on the losing side of a race to dislodge Adler from the Senate, to wit, the 1997 candidacy of my close friend and highly effective and popular Assemblyman and former Cherry Hill Mayor John Rocco. If anybody possessed the political and policy instincts and fundraising ability to defeat the then incumbent Senator Adler, it was John Rocco.
A few weeks before the election, however, George Norcross told a leading statewide Republican, “I know that Rocco is outpolling Adler now, but on Election Day the Democrats will outwork the Republicans in Camden County and pull out a victory for Adler.” That is exactly what happened.
To be sure, the Republicans will have significant factors in play against Adler. The most effective GOP assets are George Gilmore, Ocean County Republican Chair and his Executive Director, Rob Cressen who coordinated the Get-Out-the-Vote effort in Monmouth and Ocean Counties that was crucial to the Chris Christie statewide victory. Gilmore is the most powerful and effective county GOP chair I have seen in three decades, and Cressen reigns supreme as the most competent and effective Republican political operative in the state.
Although the Burlington County GOP showed some resurgence in the recent election, Gilmore will no doubt be the key player in the nomination of Adler’s GOP opponent. Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan already displayed his lack of awareness of Third District politics by failing to contact Gilmore before making public statements about running for the seat. Runyan will find that it is easier to block Michael Strahan than it is to take on George Gilmore in a Third District political fight.
It appears that Gilmore’s candidate for the seat will be state Senator Chris Connors. Connors is an excellently qualified candidate with a distinguished legislative record. If nominated, he will be amply financed by both the National Republican Congressional Committee and Gilmore’s fundraising apparatus.
There are also key political demographic factors working on behalf of any GOP candidate in the Third District. Ocean is clearly a Republican County, and while the Democrats have a registration edge in Burlington, the voters in that county tend to vote Republican.
Adler can be defeated. Still, he will be a most formidable foe. He already has a huge financial war chest, and George Norcross and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will make sure that it is substantially augmented. His popularity in Cherry Hill, his home community, remains high.
John Adler’s most significant personal political asset is his ability to see trends developing months before anybody else. He doubtless sees the possibility of an Obama decline in the polls due to a floundering economy and an incoherent foreign policy. Adler knows that like in 1992, he may well have to separate himself from an unpopular incumbent Chief Executive in order to win the support of Independent voters. His vote on ObamaCare shows that he is ready to do just that.
In short, the Third District race is highly unpredictable. The GOP can win it, but one thing is certain: John Adler will not go gently into the night.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.