Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Jersey 5: National Celebrity Doesn’t Equal Victory in House Elections

By Stuart Rothenberg

It isn’t difficult to find Democratic Congressional candidates who have a chance of knocking off a GOP incumbent or winning a Republican open seat. Democrats should net at least 10 Congressional seats this November, possibly many more. It is going to be a very good Democratic year at the Congressional level.

Perhaps that’s why I get bothered by claims from candidates who have little chance of winning but sound as if they too are on an undeniable path to victory.

In New Jersey, for example, two Democrats, John Adler and Linda Stender, have an excellent chance to win in November, while 5th district hopeful Dennis Shulman does not. But you wouldn’t always know that from the national media coverage, which includes a New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin and an article in Time, that the clinical psychologist and blind rabbi has received.

Shulman is a likable guy with a great story and a sense of humor. He’s overcome incredible odds to achieve the level of success that he has. But he isn’t the first candidate for Congress with a compelling personal story and rash of national media stories hyping his candidacy who is likely headed for defeat.

Two years ago, many journalists and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thought that Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth, who suffered serious injuries in combat, would defeat Republican Peter Roskam in an Illinois open-seat contest. Duckworth received more national media attention than I’ve ever seen for a House candidate. Money flowed into her campaign. She was a good candidate, but the district tilts Republican, and Roskam was a quality candidate, too.

Two years before Duckworth, another New Jersey House hopeful was treated like a celebrity by some media organizations. Steve Brozak, a one-time Marine with an MBA from Columbia, got the star treatment from the Wall Street Journal and found himself being interviewed on CNN. Brozak didn’t have much of a chance — he drew 41.7 percent of the vote against Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) — but reporters still liked his “story.”

This time the beneficiary of overhype is Shulman, who is running against Rep. Scott Garrett, a conservative Republican who represents a very Republican district in northern New Jersey. Garrett won the seat when moderate Republican Rep. Marge Roukema retired in 2002. Though Democrats said he was too conservative for the district, Garrett won the general election against a well-financed Democrat by more than 20 points.

Two years later, Garrett won again, but this time by “only” 16 points, 57.6 percent to 41.1 percent. In 2006, in a horrible political environment for Republicans, Garrett’s winning percentage dropped again, this time to “only” 55 percent, as he won by “only” 11 points.

So in three races against Garrett, no Democrat has hit the 44 percent mark, a good reflection of the fundamental partisan nature of this district.Toobin’s characterization of Garrett’s district in a July issue of the New Yorker is particularly off the mark. He says the district “has been leaning Democratic in recent years” even though Tom Kean Jr. (R) easily carried it in the 2006 Senate race against Sen. Bob Menendez (D) and George W. Bush won it twice rather easily.

Toobin, who is a wonderful legal analyst but whose forte is simply not politics, says the district “includes such suburbs as Ridgewood and Tenafly, in Bergen County, and some rural communities along the Pennsylvania border.” That description is technically true, but misleading. Tenafly was Garrett’s worst-performing town in 2006, while Ridgewood was his fifth-worst-performing out of 86 towns. But Garrett carried Bergen County last time, and he rolled up a 2-1 victory — and a large 17,000-vote margin — in the two “rural” counties, Sussex and Warren.

The Shulman campaign has made much about the DCCC listing it as one of its “emerging races,” as well as the DCCC’s decision “to buy advertising time in the district.”

In fact, the “emerging races” label means the Shulman campaign hasn’t yet made the committee’s “Red to Blue” list and that he is still seen by Democratic strategists as a long shot who may or may not ever be regarded as a potential winner. More importantly, the only “advertising time” the DCCC has bought so far is some radio on gas prices designed to generate press. The DCCC has reserved more than $50 million in TV time for the fall but has identified only two New Jersey races as targets for the ads, the state’s open 3rd and 7th districts involving Adler and Stender, respectively, not the 5th.

Finally, at times, the rabbi seems very un-rabbi-like. He is quoted as using the “s” word very matter-of-factly in Toobin’s piece and using the “b.s.” word in Time. I expect a lot of folks in the district may wonder about that.

And Shulman’s rhetoric seems more like a Democratic insider than a man of the cloth, such as his comment that Garrett is “in the pocket of Big Oil” and that the runup in energy prices “is the direct result of Big Oil and their cronies like Scott Garrett blocking sound energy policy for years.”

That’s boilerplate Democratic campaign rhetoric and not likely to help any Democrat carry this Republican district.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 27, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.