Congressman Rush Holt faces three challengers in the newly drawn 12th District

Candidates for the 12th Congressional District seat offer very different political perspectives, providing voters with a stark choice on Election Day.

On the one side is incumbent Democrat Rush Holt, who has one of the most liberal voting records in the House, according to Project Vote Smart, and who gets a perfect score from most environmental, pro-choice and financial-reform groups.

His main challenger, Republican Eric Beck, a risk-management consultant, is a conservative who favors a flat tax, a balanced budget amendment and a “focus on spending cuts and not on tax increases.”

The two independents in the race, Kenneth J. Cody and Jack Freudenheim, both want to target partisan gridlock and promise not to be tied to either party.

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The new boundaries

The 12th District, which spans parts of Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, has been a reliably Democratic district for the last decade. Last year’s redistricting traded its Monmouth County areas for parts of Union County, which has increased the percentage of registered Democrats from 32.9 percent in 2010 to 36.8 percent. Similarly, the percentage of registered Republicans dropped, to 14.5 percent. Nearly half of the district’s 414,856 registered voters are unaffiliated.

Congressman Rush Holt 

Holt, 63, was first elected to Congress in 1998, defeating incumbent Republican Michael Pappas 92,528 to 87,221. Before Holt’s election, the 12th had been a solidly Republican district, won by the GOP in every election since 1966. Contributing to Pappas’ defeat were his strong conservative beliefs and infamous singing of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr,” which he wrote to honor the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton, on the floor of the House in July 1998.

The 2000 election was much tougher for Holt.

Both Pappas and Richard Zimmer, the former congressman whom Pappas succeeded when Zimmer gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1996, sought the GOP nomination and Zimmer won by a wide margin.

Holt wound up defeating the more moderate Zimmer by just 651 votes — .2 percent of the total and significantly less than each of three independent candidates got that year.

Redistricting the following year shifted the 12th into more Democratic territory and Holt captured about 60 percent of the vote between 2004 and 2008. A national Republican tide narrowed his margin of victory in 2010, but he still won by 7 percentage points.

Holt, who lives in Hopewell Township, is a physicist who worked as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physic Laboratory in Plainsboro and served in the U.S. State Department, where he focused on arms-control issues. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from New York University and made national headlines last year for beating Watson, the IBM supercomputer, at a round of congressional “Jeopardy!” just a week after the computer had beaten “Jeopardy!” champions at the game. Holt was a five-time “Jeopardy!” champion in the 1970s.The seven-term congressman has made alternative energy and the promotion of scientific innovation cornerstones of his political career. He also has worked for electoral reform that includes safeguarding electronic ballots and tuition reform for students. He did not respond to requests for additional information.

Republican challenger

Beck, 54, is former state director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group focused on national budget deficits and entitlement reform. He said his goal is to get the economy growing again by empowering “entrepreneurs and small business people who are the real job creators in this country.”

He said that six weeks ago, while travelling on Route 130 in North Brunswick to a campaign event, he saw a man standing on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign that read, “Will work for food,” and was touched by it.

“In the 54 years I have lived in Central New Jersey I have never seen someone reaching out for help in this manner,” Beck said. “This man was an example of the quiet suffering that is currently taking place throughout our country among those who are unemployed.

“If you want to know why I’m running for Congress, it is to help that man standing on the side of the road and 32 million others like him who are currently unemployed.”

Truth Vision Hope Challenger

Cody, 40, lives in Lawrenceville. He ran in 2010 and collected 2,154 votes. A digital audio coordinator for Learning Ally, he is focusing his campaign on ending partisan gridlock and reforming the campaign finance system. Running under the slogan “Truth Vision Hope,” Cody said he favors an end to tax loopholes, creation of clean energy jobs and an increase in the minimum wage.

“I want to help bridge the gap between both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “We need to put an end to partisan politics and work together to have an efficient Congress.”

He wants to end the “influence that money has in politics.”

“In 2010, Congressional candidates raised over $1 billion in contributions,” said Cody, noting his campaign is self-funded. “This money could go to worthwhile causes like stem-cell research, education and helping the less-fortunate.”

Independent challenger

Freudenheim, 54, is an information technology consultant from Plainfield who has never held public office . He is a graduate of Rutgers University, and a father of two.

On his website, he describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. His goals are to “break the deadlock in Congress” and “fight for the 99 percent of Americans and constituents in New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District.”

“Partisan politics has stifled productivity in Congress for the past four years,” he said. “As an independent, I will not be beholden to any one party’s platform, but only to the people I represent.”

He plans to focus on education, job creation and rebuilding consumer confidence, and he wants to “improve the banking system by focusing on the appropriate regulations.”

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor, who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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