After spending nearly nine years representing New Jersey's seventh congressional district, conservative Republican Mike Ferguson isn't running for reelection. But the Democratic candidate for his seat is so well-known in the area that she is practically treated like an incumbent, for better and for worse.
State congresswoman Linda Stender lost by about one and a half percentage points in 2006 to Ferguson, and she has spent the last two years in almost permanent campaign mode. Her near victory in 2006 gave her name recognition and popularity along with a second look by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has been backing her candidacy. "Linda Stender has been running practically like an incumbent for the last two years. She didn't stop running. She's been raising money. She's been very visible. Some voters may think she's in Congress," said Ingrid Reed, a policy analyst for Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Stender's GOP opponent, Leonard Lance, started out in the opposite situation. A state senator, Lance spent much of the past year battling it out in a fractious primary, forced to spend a large chunk of change to defeat six other Republican contenders and left without much to broaden his profile for the general election.
But while Stender seemed initially well-positioned for a victory, especially in light of the GOP's national woes, the race appears to be a near dead heat. The latest Monmouth University survey released October 5 shows the two in a virtual tie, with Lance at 43% and Stender at 39% among likely voters, with an error margin of 4.4 percentage points. "The poll is a good indication for him given how much ground he really had to cover in getting known in this district," Reed said. But the poll leaves 14% undecided among likely voters and 18% among registered voters a sizable margin with under a month to go.
The current state of the race reflects the unpredictable nature of the district, located in the north-central region of the Garden State encompassed by Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties. While it's traditionally leaned Republican, voters there went for Al Gore in 2000 and then George W. Bush in 2004. Given the close congressional race in 2006, suburbanization in the district and a surge in voter registration for the Democrats, the seventh can no longer be decisively colored red or blue. Reed believes that Obama's get-out-the-vote efforts in the state could help Stender, but it all depends on whether his supporters continue to vote all the way down the ballot.
Stender and Lance each have their national parties in their corner. In an election year that is overwhelmingly favoring Democrats, national Republicans are focusing heavily on the district, viewing it as one of their few opportunities to retain a seat of a retiring Republican. The GOP even brought in President Bush for a September fundraiser.
Support from the party seems to be paying off a NJ Politicker report cites sources saying Lance raised at least $500,000 in the past quarter, after starting the summer with about $80,000 cash on hand. The cash will allow Lance to continue spending on the airwaves through November 4. He debuted his first ad about a month ago using the catch phrase "Stender is a spender", borrowing a theme from Ferguson's playbook in '06.
Stender has been on TV longer, airing multiple spots including biographical sketches and attacks on Lance, including one where her opponent is accused of doing the "Trenton dance"suggesting he's pocketing money from Big Oil and voting against property tax relief. Taxes and spending have been the major attack themes in this race. Both seem to be on the same page when it comes to the financial crisis Lance and Stender expressed the need for bipartisanship and swift action ahead of the House's second vote on the bailout bill and they have also used the issue as an opportunity to beat up on Congress or Wall Street while promoting their candidacies.
But it wouldn't be a New Jersey race if there weren't some accusations of corruption. Charges of impropriety have been flying in New Jersey as of late, and Lance is trying to turn the recent news into a campaign issue. Former state Senator Wayne Bryant's corruption trial began last week, and the high-profile event is allowing a lot of lawmakers to point the finger, particularly at the Democrats, who were in the majority in the state Senate. Lance has vowed that he didn't benefit from the alleged secret slush fund, and he has called for Stender to "come clean", though there's no indication that Stender was involved in the scandal.
Stender, however, may not be Lance's only problem. Michael Hsing, the Republican running as an independent candidate in the district, appears to be attracting between two and nine percent of the vote, according to different polls. He's also from Somerset County, a Republican-leaning area crucial for Lance. "If this is as close a race as it appears to be, than any third party candidate could be seen sort of as a wild card in the sense that you really don't know what it will mean," Reed said.