WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Democrats currently hold eight of New Jersey's 13 seats in the House of Representatives. With just days to go before the midterm elections, the five incumbent Republicans all appear to be in pretty good shape. However, to varying degrees, three of the Democratic incumbents have fights on their hands. And unlike in earlier years, every House race is being contested by challengers from both parties putting their hearts and souls into their sometimes long-shot bids.
The Third Congressional District
Democratic freshman representative John Adler, who represents the 3rd District, is in the most trouble. Some polling shows his Republican opponent Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagle, slightly ahead, while others track it as a dead heat.
The 3rd includes portions of Burlington, Ocean and Camden counties. Adler voted 'No' on President Obama's health care reforms, but that did not inoculate him from a tough challenge. Runyan has made repealing the Democratic health care measures a major campaign pledge and has gotten high-profile help from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The former NFL offensive tackle appears to have survived a widely-reported debate gaffe. During the debate, Runyan was asked by Adler, a Harvard Law graduate, to name one Supreme Court decision from the last 10 or 15 years with which he strongly disagreed. Runyan offered up the Dred Scott decision, circa 1857, that affirmed slavery.
But this may have been eclipsed by the disclosure that Democrats in the district were working behind the scenes in support of a Tea Party candidate on the ballot, in hopes it would draw from Runyan.
The latest campaign finance filings show Adler with $1.2 million to Runyan's $320,000 cash on hand. But in a post-Citizens United world, those head-to-head comparisons don’t mean what they once did.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, more than $1 million has flowed into the district to date from independent groups. Runyan is getting help from groups with names like Americans for Limited Government and the America Future Fund. Adler held his own in this category, though, with the National Association of Realtors spending over $500,000 on his behalf. Critical for Adler will be turnout among the district’s African Americans.
The Sixth Congressional District
To the north in the 6th Congressional District, veteran Democratic incumbent Frank Pallone is in a tough contest against Republican immigration attorney Anna Little.
Long before President Obama turned his attention to the issue, Congressman Pallone could be seen regularly during late hours live on the floor of Congress, passionately pleading for health care reform to an empty House. Perhaps more than any other member of Congress, Pallone can claim credit—or be blamed—for the bill that was ultimately signed into law.
Little's grassroots Tea Party campaign has been consistently underestimated by political professionals. She prevailed in a Republican primary where her opponent got mainstream GOP party backing and had $433,000 with which to work. Little had just $22,000 and won by only 84 votes.
Little continued her unconventional campaign in the general election, focusing on the widespread economic unease felt in the districts where many folks self-describe as Reagan Democrats.
The 6th Congressional District includes Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, as well as some of New Jersey's best-known shore destinations, like Sandy Hook. In 2008, it went for President Obama, giving him a 22 percent margin of victory. But in the two years since, a prolonged economic slowdown and extended hardship for many has altered that terrain. Middlesex is one of six New Jersey counties that voted for Obama in 2008, but flipped and supported pro-life conservative Republican Chris Christie for Governor just a year later.
The latest polling shows Little gaining traction, though Pallone, first elected to the House in 1988, is several points ahead.
But the reality that Pallone is in a competitive contest in a district that President Obama carried by a 60-to-38 percent margin in 2008 shows how much the ground has shifted in the 6th.
The Twelfth Congressional District
In the 1990s, New Jersey's 12th Congressional District was a consistently Republican district. So that's why Republican Party National Chair Michael Steele is putting the 12th on his wish list. The latest polls show Democrat Rush Holt above the 50 percent mark, but his GOP challenger Scott Sipprelle is still competitive.
Back in 1998, Holt beat one-term Republican incumbent Mike Pappas. Holt, a 61-year-old former Princeton plasma physicist, benefited greatly from the redrawing of the Congressional district after the 2000 census, which gave him more Democrats to work with and fewer Republicans to worry about. The district includes portions of Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset Counties.
Sipprelle is a 47-year-old venture capitalist who is largely self-funding an aggressive campaign. He says abortions should be legal, but rare. He opposes President Obama's health care reforms, as well as the federal bank bailout and the federal stimulus package. Sipprelle has also said that if elected, he would serve for only three terms.
Holt is a progressive with a perfect League of Conservation voter rating. He doesn't mind making waves and continues to keep the heat on the FBI for their botched handling of the 2001 anthrax attacks. He has been one of the most active House members on the issue of election reform in the wake of the 2000 election chaos.
In all three of these battleground districts, it will come down to whose base is engaged, if the Tea Party movement has pulled in new voters who have been off of pollsters' radar, and if the independents turn out.
Even after the election night victors are sworn in, they'll have to be ready for yet another changing landscape. The state re-districting that will reflect the results of the 2010 Census is bound to bring change, including the possible loss of one seat. Then there will be only twelve, down from the 15 the state had in the 1970s.
Other New Jersey Congressional races: