By Matt Friedman | June 29th, 2009 - 4:50pm
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Three New Jersey Republican House members are facing heat from conservatives over their votes on a global warming bill, and they may face primary challenges because of it.  

U.S. Reps. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton), Frank LoBiondo (R-Vineland) and Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) are members of a group that conservative bloggers and activists have taken to calling the “Elite Eight” because they broke ranks with the rest of their party to vote in favor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454).  

The bill – especially the cap and trade provision that makes up the bulk of it-- is anathema to conservatives.  Within a few hours of the vote on Friday night, the right wing blogophsere was full of outrage, with Michelle Malkin even photoshopping the photos of the eight on a “wanted” poster.  

Conservative political consultant Rick Shaftan was out to dinner when the voting took place.  By the time he got back at about 9p.m., he found about a dozen charged up emails in his inbox.  

“I’ve never in my life seen a vote have a reaction like this,” said Shaftan, the right hand man of former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, whose recent gubernatorial candidacy secured his spot as the conservative movement’s unofficial leader. “The ones who really got to me are the comments about Chris Smith, people who are very strong pro-lifers who I didn’t know even cared about cap and trade.”  

Shaftan has decided to harness what he described as a conservative groundswell, saying that there will be primary challengers to all three Republicans based not only on the cap and trade bill but also on their votes on paid family leave for federal employees and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).  

Lance, who said he welcomed “vigorous discussion” about the cap and trade legislation, said that his detractors should not be surprised by his vote.

“I indicated last year that I did not favor a carbon tax and instead wanted to investigate cap and trade,” he said.  “I’m a strong environmentalist and that was part of my campaign.”

But while he voted for cap and trade, SCHIP and paid family leave, Lance also noted that, true to his professed fiscal conservatism, he voted against President Obama’s budget and stimulus package.

Both Lance and a spokesman for LoBiondo said that some of the outrage generated by the bill was based on “misrepresentations.”  For instance, the legislation’s modified version included language for the expansion of nuclear power that was not in the originally proposed bill.  And the federal legislation won’t have a negative impact on New Jersey business, they said, because its standards are weaker than what New Jersey already has in place.  

LoBiondo anticipated the conservative pushback.  This morning, he made his case on two talk radio programs and at the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly business meeting.

His office put out a statement Friday night arguin that the bill put the United States on a path towards oil independence from sometimes hostile countries. 

“The Congressman voted on the bill very simply. He feels it’s in the best interest in New Jersey and the people he represents. There’s been talk for decade about how we need to break this addiction to foreign oil, be it energy independence and stop spending billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to countries that don’t’ like us like Venezuela and in the middle-east,” said LoBiondo Communications Director Jason Galanes.  

Galanes said that his office had gotten a lot of negative feedback – most of it from non-constituents

“Now we’re getting flooded with emails and calls, but those are coming from outside of New Jersey,” he said.  “If people in Texas are pissed and angry at his vote, then they’re angry about his vote.  I don’t think they even knew who Frank LoBiondo was before this.”

Two of the incumbents are firmly entrenched.  Smith, who was first elected in 1980, is the dean of the New Jersey delegation.  LoBiondo was elected in 1994, though national Democrats have expressed interest in working to unseat him if state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis) opts to runs against him.  

Lance, a freshman congressman whose moderate voting record as a legislator in Trenton never made him a conservative favorite, isn’t as sure a winner in either the primary or general elections – even if he easily beat back a large number of challengers in the last primary.  

“If he faces a bruising primary and wins that before going into a general election in a district that Democrats can do well in, he’s going to be the most vulnerable because he’s the freshman,” said Murray.   “History shows us that the toughest reelection campaign for a congressman is the first.”

Murray also noted the significance that nearly half of the eight Republican yes votes came from New Jersey, which, with five GOP congressmen, is "the last bastion of the northeast where Republicans still have any foothold in the House of Representatives.”  

In the unlikely event that conservatives are successful in replacing all three with more ideologically pure candidates, even Smith’s district – where Democrats have tried but failed to run truly competitive campaigns – could come into play.

“If a true conservative could knock off Smith, the Democrats would smell blood there,” said Murray.

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