Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Each semester as part of my course on the U.S. Congress I give a lecture called "profile of the membership" in which I break the individuals in Congress down into a variety of categories, looking at how the composition of Congress has changed over time. In addition to party shifts, you see regional changes, racial and gender changes, etc. What we've never seen in Congress before is a blind rabbi. While there is some chance of that happening come November, we'll probably need a Democratic wave to make it happen.
In New Jersey's fifth district, incumbent Republican Scott Garrett is being challenged by Dennis Shulman. Blind since youth, Shulman is trying to capture a district that has been pretty solidly Republican (see New York Times coverage here). Garrett, first elected in 2002 with 59% of the vote, received 58% in '04 and 55% in '06, leading some Democratic operatives to view the district as a potential pick-up. In 2004, Bush got 57% in the district.
As the district map shows, the 5th hugs the New York and Pennsylvania borders and has parts that are quite rural, by New Jersey standards. Most of the population, however, is concentrated in the Bergen County portion of the district. Many of these voters are affluent, commute to New York, and have tended to vote Republican. Here's how CQ's Politics in America describes the 5th:
The 5th's property values and income levels are among the highest in the state, and no municipality here has more than 30,000 residents. The 5th also has the smallest minority population of any New Jersey district...Saddle River, in wealthy Bergen County, is home to multimillion-dollar homes, but Bergen County's tony suburbs contrast with a more rural feel in the 5th's portion of Passaic County to the west, which includes attractions dating back to the colonial era...The scenic back country of Sussex and Warren counties traditionally has been a mix of farmland and small towns, but both counties have started to change as young professionals from New York City move into the area. Warren County's population has increased by more than 20% since 1990, and the county continues to experience significant housing development.
Shulman is basing his campaign on Garrett's very conservative voting record--which he believes to be out of step with the state and the district. For the past four years, Garrett has received a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union. Most analysts looking at the race feel that Garrett will pull through. Stuart Rothenberg is very critical of many in the media equating Shulman's novelty with his credibility as a candidate, especially in this type of district. While Garrett's numbers have gone down a few points over the past two cycles, this is still a solidly Republican district. In the last redistricting cycle, it was consciously drawn to give Republicans an edge.