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GOP Incumbent Seen Prevailing Over Democratic Newcomer in 4th District

Democrat Scolavino faces uphill struggle against Smith, who is running for 17th Congressional term

smith and scolavino
Republican incumbent Chris Smith (left) and Democratic challenger Ruben Scolavino.

New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District race looks set to result in another two-year term for long-time incumbent Chris Smith, overcoming Democrat Ruben Scolavino in a solidly Republican constituency that Smith has held since 1981.

Smith’s popularity and strong name recognition compared with a neophyte opponent is seen leading to a 17th term in a district that has handed him winning margins of at least 25 percentage points over Democratic rivals in the past three elections.

Political analysts said Scolavino, a Freehold attorney making his first run for national office, doesn’t stand a chance against Smith in the November 4 election.

“The Democrats put up a sacrificial lamb,” said Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Most Democrats don’t even know who the person is.

“It’s not just that there’s a long-term popular incumbent, it’s that there’s a Republican incumbent in a very Republican district,” Dworkin said. “Smith is going to win again, and it’s not competitive.”

Smith, 61, declined an interview request but issued a six-paragraph statement pledging to continue to work for the district -- which spans parts of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties -- on issues ranging from the preservation of jobs at the Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst military base to protecting the U.S. from Ebola.

“I will continue to work to ensure that the federal government meets its responsibilities to help people who are victims of Superstorm Sandy, and protect the nation from Ebola, terrorism, and other threats,” the statement said.

Smith, who lives in Robbinsville, is a conservative who voted to repeal Obamacare; to ban abortions after 20 weeks; and to sue President Barack Obama for exceeding his constitutional authority, pledged to work for “real solutions to real problems that people in New Jersey have struggled with.”

For his part, Scolavino accused Smith of being a complacent incumbent who fails to connect with voters.

“He’s a Washington guy,” Scolavino said in an interview. “He stays low, he doesn’t rock the boat, and that’s why most people, when I talk to them, don’t even know who their Congressman is.”

Asked why Smith keeps getting reelected if he is so out of touch with the voters, Scolavino said constituents don’t understand what goes on in Congress, in part because Smith doesn’t tell them the whole truth about issues such as his opposition to gun control.

“As long as he stays on a low level, nobody wants to change anything because he hasn’t done anything that requires any courage,” Scolavino said.

Smith’s campaign manager, Scott Maraldo, dismissed Scolavino’s attacks as an example of “another desperate, uninformed opponent” trying to distort the incumbent’s record of working for veterans, seniors, Alzheimers patients, children with autism, and human trafficking victims.

Recent bills sponsored by Smith include one to provide $1.3 billion in federal funds over five years for autism research.

Scolavino said he resented the accusation that he was a “sacrificial lamb,” saying he would not have knocked on “tens of thousands” of doors in the campaign if he weren’t trying to win.

“I’m not here to be a sacrificial lamb,” he said. “I’m here to try to win this race. If not, I wouldn’t be doing this interview, I wouldn’t be going to all these events. I would just be doing the bare minimum.”

He said his financial backing is “not in the hundreds of thousands” but he wasn’t concerned about that because he is trying to reach supporters through social media rather than costly TV advertising.

Scolavino’s campaign had total receipts of $4,405 as of June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. By contrast, Smith’s total receipts are listed at $346,134 for the same period.

“We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have a lot of the pizzazz,” he said. “But I believe that’s important for us in getting out professional politicians.”

Scolavino, 39, who came to the U.S. from Uruguay in 1981 when he was six years old, named immigration reform as among his top issues. He said undocumented immigrants such as those in Monmouth County should be given a path to U.S. citizenship as long as they don’t have criminal records, and offered the opportunities that he has enjoyed as an immigrant.

Running for Congress is a way to “give back” to the country that has allowed him to prosper as a prosecutor and now an attorney in private practice, after his parents emigrated with “basically $100,” Scolavino said. He said he worked three jobs to put himself through college.

“This is all about giving back,” he said. “In my personal life, I am very satisfied, I have a wife I have been with for 19 years, I have a nice house, I have a practice that’s doing well. I teach college. I could do fine without running for office.”

He called for a raise in the minimum wage to $12-$15, arguing that it would help many working people who have not benefited from recent economic gains such as a declining jobless rate.

“Being able to pay people a reasonable living wage that can give you the bare minimums of shelter and food is what we should be doing in this country, especially when there are so many people making so much money,” he said.

“The economy has made some recovery but it’s mostly for the top 1 percent,” he said. “The working-class people are still stuck making wages that are frankly not livable.”

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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