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.
#ad#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.
#page#An immigration attorney by profession, Little supports the Arizona law that triggered angry street protests and drew a high-profile rebuke from Mexican president Felipe Calderón last spring. She deems it perfectly constitutional and argues that it “did not allow profiling to occur.” The Arizona policy change was only necessary, she adds, because of Washington’s reluctance to enforce existing federal statutes. While Little, who speaks fluent Spanish, opposes any amnesty program for those who entered the U.S. illegally, she also rails against the immigration status quo, which has led to rampant exploitation of undocumented workers. “The immigrants are being abused, and the taxpayers are being abused,” she says.
As Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine puts it, the Little–Pallone matchup features “an unrepentant tea partier against an unrepentant Obamacare supporter.” Indeed, Pallone has been running as a proud liberal: boasting of his role in passing health-care reform, touting his environmental bona fides, and blasting Little’s connection to the Tea Party. In a message to his e-mail list, he warned that “we’re up against an out-of-touch, right-wing, ‘tea party approved’ opponent who wants to bring New Jersey back to the Bush years — when corporate interests always trumped the interests of our working families.” During a recent campaign appearance in South Amboy, he declared that Democrats “are fighting for real American values against a very negative and misinformed Republican party that wants to stop progress.”
#ad#In a district where Democrats enjoy such a massive voter-registration advantage, Pallone’s shore-up-the-base strategy makes sense. Yet Geller, the Republican pollster, stresses that the 6th district is filled with both upper-class “brie-and-chardonnay Democrats,” who tend to be ideological liberals, and middle-class “Budweiser Democrats,” many of whom (like Little) are pro-life Catholics. Pallone’s fundraising numbers dwarf those of his GOP rival — the most recent data show Pallone with $4.2 million in cash on hand (through September 30) and Little with less than $110,000 (through October 13) — but Little clearly has a more galvanized pool of supporters. The two candidates debated on October 17 at a Jewish temple in Aberdeen, near Raritan Bay (a section of Lower New York Bay). According to Mulshine, the Star-Ledger columnist, “the overflow crowd was made up mostly of members of ‘Anna’s Army’ of volunteers. They booed and jeered Pallone loudly, despite admonitions from the moderator.”
Little has already pulled off one of the biggest upsets of Campaign 2010. Can she pull off another? While the odds of a Little victory look better today than they did over the summer, the Highlands mayor remains a decided underdog. Pallone, who turns 59 on October 30, has been husbanding a large war chest — with his eye on a Senate bid, many speculate — which will enable him to flood the airwaves (if he chooses) prior to Election Day. He also has a reputation for “terrific constituent service,” says John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. Aided by a huge funding gap, the perks of incumbency, and the benefits of representing a gerrymandered district, Pallone is still widely expected to survive the Little insurgency.
Even if she loses to Pallone, says one longtime New Jersey political observer, Little’s primary win has rattled the state GOP establishment, and it will surely encourage other Tea Party conservatives to challenge Republican incumbents. In that sense, regardless of the outcome on November 2, her campaign “is going to reverberate for years.”
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.