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House: Ferguson Retirement Creates Another Competitive Open Seat

UPDATE, 6:30 pm: In a major blow to Republican recruiting, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R) removed himself from consideration late this afternoon. "I would like to thank the various party leaders, activists and supporters who have reached out to me and urged me to run for Congress," Kean said. "However, I will not be a candidate for Congressman Ferguson's seat.

New Jersey Republican Rep. Mike Ferguson announced he will not run for re-election in 2008, leaving House Republicans with yet another swing seat to defend next November.

"Being a representative in Congress is more meaningful than I had imagined, and I know that now is the right time to step away from public life to focus more on family life while our children are still young," said Ferguson in a statement released by his office.

Ferguson had held the seat since 2000 but has been a perennial Democratic target thanks to the 7th District's swing nature and the incumbent's tendency to attract publicity. (See The Congressman's Night on the Town and FEC Fines Ferguson $210K for Loan [subscription required] for more.)

The New Jersey Congressman is the 17th Republican to announce his retirement heading into the 2008 election. Just four Democrats have stepped aside to date.

Here's our sketch of the district:

Geography: This north-central New Jersey district contains multitudes. It has suburban dwellers who commute to and from New York City but also exurban areas and even a few rural patches. The district is affluent with the second highest household median income of any seat in the state. (New Jersey's 11th District has the highest.)

Electoral Results: The seat has been in Republican hands for more than three decades. Rep. Matthew Rinaldo held it from 1972 to 1992 followed by Rep. Bob Franks who vacated it in 2000 for a Senate bid against Jon Corzine (D). Ferguson won a very competitive (and expensive) open seat race that year with 52 percent against then Fanwood Mayor Maryanne Connelly (D). Redistricters made the 7th more friendly for Republicans in the 2001 line-drawing and Ferguson won easily in 2002 and 2004. But last cycle Ferguson barely escaped a challenge from Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D), winning a 49 percent to 48 percent victory. While President Bush carried the district with 49 percent in 2000, the redrawn seat gave him a more healthy 53 percent in 2004.

Candidates: Stender is the choice on the Democratic side, having come within 3,000 votes of knocking off the incumbent in 2006. She raised $1.6 million for that bid, and through September had collected $275,000 for this race with $227,000 in the bank. Republicans' first choice is state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of the revered former governor, and a second place finisher in the 2000 Republican primary against Ferguson. Kean Jr. was his party's nominee in 2006 against Sen. Bob Menendez, running a credible but underfunded campaign and eventually losing 55 percent to 45 percent. A slew of other GOP names are mentioned including Franks and many state Assemblymen and state Senators.

Outlook: Covered by the most expensive media market in the country (New York City), getting known in this district is a huge and costly challenge. That gives Stender an immediate leg up as her 2006 campaign built up her name ID among voters in the district. That initial advantage could be erased if Kean is the Republican nominee, because not only was he on the ballot statewide in 2006, he also carries a last name that is golden in New Jersey (His father, Thomas H. Kean, was a two-term governor and the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission) . Republicans argue that the district has shown a willingness to vote for GOP statewide candidates (Franks in 2000, Doug Forrester in the 2005 governor's race). True, but New Jersey is Democratic territory and should act like it in a presidential year -- especially if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is leading the ticket. Another top tier pickup opportunity for Democrats.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 19, 2007; 5:28 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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