Tea Party Candidates Pepper the Ballot in NJ Primaries

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Political strategists don't expect that any of the 8 incumbent Democratic or 5 Republican congressmen will lose their party's nomination.

    Thanks to the tea party movement, Republican voters in today's Congressional primaries in New Jersey will have more choices than they're used to.

    Twenty-nine Republicans are seeking to represent the state's 13 U.S. House districts.

    That's more than any year since at least 1980, when the state had 14 seats in the House. The high number of candidates is especially surprising since every incumbent in the state is seeking re-election. It's usually open seats that draw crowded primary fields.

    But, according to New Jersey Newsroom, only 14 percent of New Jerseyans even realize that the primary election is Tuesday, a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University indicates.

    Much of the boom comes from candidates backed by tea party groups, or who at least share ideas with the loose coalition of organizations that have sprung up in the past couple of years espousing limited federal government and lower taxes. Tea partiers often de-emphasize traditional conservative social positions, such as opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.

    The group's political goal for this year is a long shot by any estimation — to swing Congress from Democratic control to Republican.

    There are also 18 Democrats running this year, two fewer than in 2008 but enough to total 47 candidates from the two parties — the most since 1992.

    Discontent with President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress seems to be motivating some to run.

    "Given the political climate that we're currently in, a number of people have decided that this might be the best year for them to enter politics and win," said Don Adams, treasurer of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association, which is endorsing candidates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

    Tea party organizers say the candidates are emboldened by the fact that Chris Christie, a conservative Republican who shares many of their ideas, won the governor's election last year. He did well in several areas that supported Obama the year before.

    The surge in candidates is happening all over the state — even places where conservatives of any stripe rarely get much traction.

    Take the 9th Congressional District, which includes parts of Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties.

    Democrat Steve Rothman has represented it since 1997, when he replaced longtime Rep. Robert Torricelli, also a Democrat. The last time more than one Republican even ran in the primary was in 1982; one year, no Republicans ran.

    This time, there are three — Michael Agosta, John Aslanian and Sergey Sevchuk. All of them showed up last month at a forum sponsored by the New Jersey Tea Party Coalition, which has not endorsed any of them.

    The winner will face long odds in the general election, where Rothman regularly wins by more than a 2 to 1 ratio.

    In some districts, there are dueling tea party endorsements — something that can happen easily in a movement that doesn't have a main organization to unify it.

    In the 3rd District, which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs to the shore and includes portions of Camden, Burlington and Ocean Counties, Republicans usually rule. But two years ago, Democrat John Adler won the seat, taking advantage of an open seat and the pull of voters to Obama.

    Two Republicans are seeking the seat. Justin Michael Murphy, a conservative who put up a strong primary showing two years ago despite having no support from the local Republican organizations and running on a shoestring budget, has been endorsed by three area tea party groups.

    The Independence Hall Tea Party Association, meanwhile, is backing Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles lineman who has the support of all three county Republican organizations in the district.

    Adams said the two candidates gave nearly identical answers to the group's questionnaire. The organization's 25 board members voted. Adams said it was close, with Runyan's deeper financial resources and party support making the difference.

    "The majority of us felt he was the stronger conservative candidate," he said.

    Murphy said the tea party groups give him confidence heading into Tuesday's election because they're also providing him with campaign volunteers who knock on doors, staff phone banks — and donate money.

    "For a candidate like me running from the ground up, it helps," he said.

    Even if the tea party falls short of the major goal of retaking Congress, a strong showing in places like New Jersey could make a long-term difference in the Republican Party.

    "We're going to be grabbing hundreds of committee seats at the local level all over the state," said Mark Falzon, who is active in three New Jersey tea party groups and serves as the state coordinator for the national Tea Party Patriots. "In about three election cycles, we'll have a firm grasp."

    Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political scientist, is skeptical that the tea party candidates will beat establishment Republicans next week.

    Turnout in primaries where House seats are the top of the ticket in New Jersey usually attract less than 10 percent of eligible voters. He said he expects low numbers again this year — but not so low that wildcat candidates can defeat those backed by Republican organizations.