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Dems target open seats in New Jersey

Republicans have long held the seats in New Jersey’s 3rd and 7th districts, but with suburban growth, the anti-Washington atmosphere and the retirements of GOP Reps. Mike Ferguson and Jim Saxton, Democrats think 2008 will finally be their year.

In the 7th, Democrats will again back Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who lost to Ferguson by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2006. With Ferguson leaving Congress to spend more time with his family, nine candidates have talked about running, including Republicans Leonard Lance, the state Senate minority leader, and Kate Whitman, daughter of former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R).

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Democrats believe that the district, represented by a Republican since 1981, is becoming more independent as it becomes more affluent. It runs from the Pennsylvania border nearly to Newark in the east, where it’s a short commute to New York City. The median income of its residents is almost $75,000.  

Stender said she will reprise her theme of bringing change to Washington: “The reality is that the voters are shifting, as the Republican Party got hijacked by the very right wing.” She added that she will differentiate herself from Republicans by calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, an expansion of healthcare coverage and a national response to global warming.

Ferguson ran as a centrist, someone willing to buck the party line on the environment.

Democrats tried to attack him for his vote for Iraq war authorization and President Bush’s tax cuts, but he has noted his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ferguson responded to Democrats last year by labeling Stender a spender.

Lance is taking a similar tack, calling himself a fiscal conservative, social moderate and strong environmentalist.

“I believe my views are the views of the overwhelming majority of this district,” he said. “That is true regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats or undeclared voters.” Lance said he respected a woman’s right to choose while supporting parental-notification abortion laws. He also touted his experience in the state Senate, where he opposed the use of bonds to pay for state projects but supported measures to preserve open space.

Whitman said that she would bring experience from working in Washington while also providing a fresh perspective. She served as communications director for then-Rep.

Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and worked in the U.S. Department of Labor, where she tried to find employment and training for workers displaced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I don’t think Trenton politics is what New Jersey voters want right now,” said Whitman, who, at 30, is 15 years younger than Lance. “Just because I haven’t had any elective experience, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

She said that she would work to cut spending while also trying to get past partisanship. Other candidates include former Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield, Scotch Plains Mayor Marty Marks and former Hillsborough Deputy Mayor Chris Venis. At least five other Republicans, including Assemblyman Peter Biondi, have said they’re considering runs.

Any successful candidate will need to capture votes from new voters moving into McMansions in the once-rural district, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

Democrats, in particular, will look for votes from the district’s affluent progressives, a group that includes ex-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D).

“This is probably a district that would respond to someone willing to do something about climate change and healthcare issues,” he said.

The 3rd district is slightly more Republican; located in the state’s south-central section, it includes Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base and is more rural than the 7th. It also reelected Saxton last year by a 58-41 percent count.

Baker, however, said that Republicans may have a tough time defeating state Sen. John Adler, whom Democrats have already tabbed as their candidate. Adler serves as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and has been an ally to Gov. Jon Corzine (D) — two roles that would help him get his message out, Baker said. House Democrats have given Adler and Stender their support, with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman, appearing with both in New Jersey last month.

Just like in the 7th district, the Republicans’ situation is muddled. Two local officials plan to run: Christopher Myers, incoming mayor of Medford Township, Gulf War veteran and Lockheed Martin vice president, and Jack Kelly, a member of the Union County board of freeholders.

Myers, 42, has stressed his military experience in an area with many military families. He also said that his conservative positions on the economy are in line with the district’s voters, adding, “They want limited government and opportunities for good business.”

Kelly said that he would support the military and that the country needs to win the war in Iraq. He would also look to rein in federal spending. “The message is simple: As a state senator, John Adler already believes that New Jersey’s problem is that taxpayers aren’t spending enough money in Trenton, and he’s going to make that the same message in Washington,” he said.

Whoever emerges will likely try to hit Democrats for voting for more government programs.

“Democrats in Congress have voted for multiple tax hikes that will not play, especially in a time of economic uncertainty,” said Ken Spain, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Despite not having a front-runner yet, Spain said the GOP candidates will benefit from being in districts with Republican tilts.

Democrats are pointing to the close race in the 7th district and the Saxton and Ferguson retirements as evidence that the Republican leanings are things of the past.

“These New Jersey congressional districts have been trending Democratic,” said DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James. “And now, with strong Democratic candidates and a broken Republican base they are ripe for Democratic pick-ups.”