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Democrats Say Heavily Republican 7th Congressional District Could Go Either Way

NJ political pundits predict fireworks in the 3rd, which could be the closest House race in the state this year.

With the national party conventions over, the focus turns to congressional races, and the election season has already delivered one surprise to New Jersey.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Leonard Lance, on its list of 20 "emerging races" across the country, meaning it is one that the DCCC believes has the potential to become competitive.

That move came as a surprise, because there are about 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the sprawling district, which covers Hunterdon County and portions of Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties. What's more, Lance, seeking his third term, won in 2010 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

"The addition of my campaign to this list is a reflection of the hard work of our volunteers and the aggressive campaign that we have run," said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex) and Lance's main opponent.

Already on the committee's 50 Red to Blue Races, districts the Democrats are seeking to win from the GOP, is South Jersey's 3rd, which has seesawed between the parties over the last three elections. U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, a former pro football player and Republican, won two years ago, defeating incumbent John Adler, a Democrat, who had two years earlier won the seat when Republican Rep. Jim Saxton retired. Adler's widow Shelley Adler, a lawyer, is opposing Runyan this year.

New Jersey political observers see the 3rd as likely to be the closest House race in the state this year.

"One-termer Congressman Runyan benefits from incumbency and a favorable outcome from redistricting," said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton State College. "CD3 is still a close district. Shelly Adler benefits from name recognition, reasonable amount of campaign resources, and perhaps some help from the top of the ticket."

Douglas is referring to this year's presidential race and President Barack Obama's expected win in New Jersey. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters had the president getting support from 51 percent of those surveyed to 44 percent for Republican Mitt Romney, while in late August the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll had Obama ahead 51-37.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Hudson County Democrat in his seventh year in the upper house, holds a 47-35 lead over state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), according to the latest Rutgers poll, while Quinnipiac gives Menendez 50 percent to 40 percent for Kyrillos.

Keeping a Low Profile

While he is well known in state political circles, having served almost 24 years in the state Legislature, Kyrillos is apparently not well known among voters: The late August Rutgers poll found three-quarters of those surveyed either did not know him, or had no opinion of him.

"Senator Kyrillos is fighting an uphill battle for attention against a well-funded incumbent in a blue state," said David Redlawsk, poll director and professor of political science at Rutgers University. "His first TV ads started right after we polled, so the lack of awareness is not overly surprising. Still, he has a long way to go to get voters' attention."

History is against Kyrillos: It has been 40 years since New Jersey voters elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate.

And the third strike is money: As of June 30, Menendez had five times more cash on hand than Kyrillos -- $10.3 million vs. $1.9 million.

Hoping to close that gap, Kyrillos announced yesterday the appointment of well-known GOP lawyer Lawrence E. Bathgate II to be his finance chairman. Bathgate served as the GOP's national finance chairman under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well finance chairman for Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

In addition to one Senate seat, the state's entire congressional delegation is on the November ballot. The redrawing of districts meant the state loses one of its 13 seats in the House. If all the incumbents were to win and Donald Payne Jr. succeeds his father, who died last March, in the 10th District, that would leave the state evenly split, with six Republicans and six Democrats. The odd man out was U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, D-9th, who was redistricted into the Republican-dominant 5th and chose instead to run against fellow Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell in the primary, where he lost.

There are also three state Assembly seats on the ballot, for unexpired terms in Districts 4, 16, and 26. And voters will be asked to decide two questions: A $750 million bond issue for construction work at New Jersey colleges, and whether state judges should be required to pay more for their benefits.

The most recent Rutgers poll found broad support for the bond issue -- 56 percent in favor and 27 percent against. Although no poll results are available for the judicial question, it had the near unanimous support of both parties and Gov. Chris Christie, who were angered when the state Supreme Court ruled last year's state law requiring public workers to pay more for their pension and health benefits did not apply to judges because the state constitution forbids the Legislature from reducing the salary of sitting judges.

NJ Spotlight is providing comprehensive coverage of all the races in our Voter Guide, which is continually updated with the latest background information and campaign finance data and news about the candidates, as well as in a series of articles.

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