Atlantic Highlands, N.J. – Ah, gerrymandering. The time-honored tradition that explains why some congressional boundaries look as if they were drawn by a hyperactive toddler using a deformed crayon. Take New Jersey’s 6th district, which vaguely resembles a lower-case “u” attached to a lower-case “n.” Spanning four counties in the east-central portion of the state, it is economically heterogeneous but thoroughly Democratic. The last time eleven-term Rep. Frank Pallone faced even a semi-competitive race was 1998, when he triumphed by 17 percentage points. Since then, he has garnered at least 66 percent of the vote in every cycle.
His total this year will be much lower. On October 6, the Monmouth University Polling Institute (MUPI) released a survey of likely voters that gave Pallone only a twelve-point advantage (53 percent to 41 percent) over GOP challenger Anna Little, the mayor of Highlands (population: around 5,000). “A twelve-point lead may look comfortable,” said MUPI director Patrick Murray, “but not when you consider the fact that Pallone regularly wins reelection by more than 30 points.” Indeed, Pallone trailed Little by 13 points (38 percent to 51 percent) among self-described independents.
The trouble for Little is that his district has more than twice as many registered Democrats as registered Republicans. Barack Obama carried it by 22 points in 2008, and the MUPI poll concluded that just 37 percent of its likely voters want the GOP to retake Congress, compared with 47 percent who hope the Democrats maintain control. Meanwhile, 51 percent have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, which has provided the grassroots energy for Little’s campaign.
On the other hand, in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial contest, Republican Chris Christie outran Democrat Jon Corzine in 30 of the 40 municipalities that are either wholly or partly located in Pallone’s district. Granted, Christie’s success owed much to anti-Corzine sentiment, and gubernatorial results are not necessarily a reliable indicator of voting patterns in national elections. But 61 percent of the district’s likely voters believe America is on the wrong track, according to the MUPI survey, and only 48 percent approve of Obama’s job performance.
For that matter, shortly after the MUPI poll was released, conservative blogger Art Gallagher questioned its assumptions about voter turnout. Murray, the MUPI director, acknowledged that “no one knows what November 2’s electorate will look like.” He stuck by his projections, but calculated that under the more Republican turnout model suggested by Gallagher, Pallone was ahead by nine points.
The 22-year Democratic incumbent is still favored to keep his seat, but Republicans have all the enthusiasm and momentum heading into the last full week before Election Day. In a survey of likely voters conducted for the Little campaign earlier this month, GOP pollster Adam Geller found Pallone up by just one point, 44 percent to 43 percent, with Little holding a 15-point edge (49 percent to 34 percent) among independents. Geller realizes that Pallone backers will dismiss his internal poll as biased and meaningless, but he insists that, in the current political environment, Little “has a legitimate chance” to win.
Every Saturday, her supporters have been launching coordinated “ground assaults” that involve old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning. Their goal is to knock on more than 100,000 doors by November 2. Such shoe-leather tactics helped Little, 43, score a major upset in the Republican primary, in which she squeaked past mega-rich newspaper publisher Diane Gooch — the establishment candidate — by a mere 84 votes, despite being wildly outspent. As the Newark Star-Ledger notes, Gooch “had the organizational support of every Republican county committee in the district.”
Many candidates move to the center after winning a primary. Not Little. Even though she is competing in a heavily Democratic district, the small-town mayor has campaigned as a robust, unapologetic Tea Party conservative, while picking up endorsements from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. In the near term, she wants to defund Obamacare (a “monstrosity”) and implement “across the board” tax cuts. Ultimately, she would prefer to see the health-care law repealed entirely and the FairTax adopted. The short-statured redhead also advocates shuttering the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.