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Frelinghuysen Bows Out, Red and Blue Contenders Line Up to Make Bid for 11th

With his decision to step aside, New Jersey loses what is arguably its most important member of the House, chair of powerful Appropriations Committee

Rodney Frelinghuysen
U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th)

The announced retirement of a second GOP congressman from New Jersey can be read as a reflection of the organized position Democratic grassroots groups have formed to try and oust Republican incumbent congressmen this year.

With Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen's decision not to seek re-election to his 11th District seat representing most of Morris County and parts of Essex, Passaic, and Sussex, the state loses a man who is arguably its most important member of the House, as Frelinghuysen is currently chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which passes spending bills. He has been instrumental in getting federal money for projects in the state, including for superstorm Sandy cleanup and recovery.

But while the 11th Congressional District has historically been considered solidly Republican, Frelinghuysen has faced fierce opposition from Democrats and independents this year, particularly from the group NJ 11th for Change. His decision not to run could make it easier for a Democrat to win a seat the GOP has held for more than three decades, which would make the state's congressional delegation more Democratic and bring the party that much closer to gaining control of the House.

"As an incumbent, there is some built-in advantage," and so it is better to run for an open seat than against an incumbent, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. And there will be an "anti-Trump" sentiment among voters this November.

Tarred with the Trump label?

On the other hand, Murray said, with Frelinghuysen off the ballot, the Democratic nominee won't be able to tar the Republican nominee as "part of the Trump administration" and if the GOP nominates a moderate woman, in particular, that could steal at least some of the Democrat's thunder. The district did choose Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, although by just 1 percentage point.

Frelinghuysen, 71, has served more than four decades in elective office, including his 12 terms in the House, 11 years in the state Assembly, and nine as a Morris County freeholder. Ranked the 13th wealthiest member of Congress with an estimated net worth in 2015 of more than $54 million, the Harding man comes from a family that one author called a political dynasty. Frelinghuysen's father once served in the House representing many of the same towns, three more ancestors served in the U.S. Senate, as well as other government positions. Indeed, his great, great, great, great grandfather was one of New Jersey's earliest political leaders.

"I have worked in a bipartisan manner, not just in times of crisis but always, because I believe it best serves my constituents, my state and our country," Frelinghuysen said in a statement his office released announcing his retirement at the end of his term. "My father reminded me often that we are temporary stewards of the public trust. I have sincerely endeavored to earn that trust every day."

Through much of his career, Frelinghuysen liked to say he was fiscally conservative and socially moderate, but in the past decade, he had moved increasingly to the right as the Republican party as a whole had. He has always been proper and polite, well-liked among the GOP in Morris County and his district and facing little or no primary opposition and token Democratic opposition, winning with typically 60 percent of the vote or more. In 2000, filmmaker Michael Moore famously ran a ficus plant against Frelinghuysen as part of his television series The Awful Truth to highlight how little serious opposition he and other incumbents typically faced.

A barrage of resistance

But after the 2016 presidential election, Frelinghuysen faced a barrage of resistance from those opposed to the election of President Donald Trump and his policies. Most notably, the group NJ11th for Change formed to challenge him, holding "Fridays with Frelinghuysen" events at his Morristown office demanding to meet with him to voice their concerns about such issues as the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, immigration, and the tax bill that passed in December. Their website ticks up each day Frelinghuysen does not hold a town hall — it was up to 1,678 days on Monday, or about 4 1/2 years since his last in-person town hall — and they started a #wheresrodney hashtag on Twitter. This year's Women's March on New Jersey, which drew an estimated 15,000 people, was held in the heart of the 11th District in Morristown.

"Congressman Frelinghuysen's announcement is a testament to the grit and power of the constituents of CD11 and the members of NJ 11th for Change," said Saily Avelenda, co-executive director of NJ11th for Change. "For over a year, he hid from us, refused to meet with us, and voted against our interests. But (we) refused to give up. And today, Congressman Frelinghuysen finally acknowledged what we already knew: That he no longer has the confidence of his constituents."

No reason given

Frelinghuysen did not himself give a reason for his retirement, and a spokesman did not return a request for comment, but political observers said he no doubt does not have the stomach for a contentious campaign that he might lose. The Cook Political Report rated Frelinghuysen one of the 17 most vulnerable Republican representatives in the country this year, and a December poll for the liberal Patriot Majority USA showed Frelinghuysen had an approval rating of 28 percent in his district and was trailing some Democratic opponent by nine points.

"This is such an unpopular time to be a Republican House member from New Jersey," said Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. "Had it been a different political landscape, surely he would have held on to his seat."

Five Democrats are currently seeking the party's nomination to run in the 11th, with most political observers betting on Rebecca "Mikie" Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and former federal prosecutor from Montclair, to win. Harrison said Sherrill, who had raised some $688,000 and had about $496,000 on hand at the end of September 2017, was poised to present "quite a substantial challenge" to Frelinghuysen.

"He wouldn't relish the prospect of having to compete in a tight race, putting in all the time campaigning and fundraising, and then possibly losing, which would be politically embarrassing," added Harrison.

Murray said Frelinghuysen's position became a Catch-22. Frelinghuysen had voted to release the recent federal tax overhaul bill from his committee, but then voted against it on the floor of the House, an unusual step for the chair of the Appropriations Committee. But New Jersey is one of the states that will be hurt most by the measure. According to reports, that prompted House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to threaten to strip Frelinghuysen of his chairmanship.

Battered in budget battle

"What happened with the budget battle and the ACA really battered Rodney Frelinghuysen," Murray said. "To maintain his leadership position, he has to veer to the right, but to keep his seat in the district, he has to move to the left. He is in a no-win situation."

While Frelinghuysen's retirement on balance is believed to help a Democratic opponent, that may depend on which Republican is chosen to replace him on the ballot.

"This has traditionally been a moderate seat. It was gerrymandered to be a Republican seat, but the political culture is definitely moderate," said Harrison. "In this district, the general election constituency would demand a moderate Republican."

However, it will be up to Republican primary voters to choose their new candidate, and they will be members of four different counties, one of which — Morris — does not give any Republican the so-called party line, or endorsement.

"Lots of people will probably be throwing their hats in the ring," Harrison said. "My bet is there will be one or more avid Trump supporters. These types of personas sometimes dominate when there are open seats. While the party elites may want to see a moderate chosen, the GOP primary voters tend to be more politically ideologically right wing."

Frelinghuysen's announcement, while not unexpected by some, still surprised many. Last week, GOP strategist and Frelinghuysen adviser Mike DuHaime was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he was "confident Rodney is going to win."

He had already faced one Republican primary opponent — attorney Martin Hewitt, who calls himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. No one else quickly jumped into the fray to replace him, though insiders expect Morris County state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio and Assemblyman Jay Webber, who represent the 26th district, to run.

National Republican Congressional Campaign Chairman Steve Stivers praised Frelinghuysen in a statement and expressed confidence that the 11th will remain red.

"This district has been held by a Republican since the 1980s, and we plan to keep it that way in November," he said.

Evan Lukaske, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, naturally had a different view of the upcoming election.

"After ducking his constituents for months, Representative Frelinghuysen has now denied them the chance to throw him out," Lukaske said. "Representative Frelinghuysen's retirement opens up a very competitive seat that is moving quickly towards Democrats. With veteran and former federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill's strong candidacy, and the abysmal approval ratings of Speaker Ryan's Republican Congress, Democrats are confident that this seat will turn blue next November."

Frelinghuysen is the second Republican House member in New Jersey, and 33rd in the nation, to announce his retirement. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd) and among the most moderate of the state's GOP House members, announced his decision not to seek reelection last November.

Avelenda said NJ11th for Change will continue to stay involved in this year's election.

"The role of NJ11 remains the same — to ensure that the person sitting in Congressman Frelinghuysen's seat fully represents CD11," she said. "We will continue to work hard until we elect a representative that will put our interests first, not the corporate special interests, and not the interests of the party. Our interests. That is the goal, and we remain laser-focused in making that happen."

New Jersey's loss

Regardless of who wins, Frelinghuysen's colleagues on both sides of the aisle said New Jersey has lost a powerful representative.

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th), another Republican incumbent whose district is considered in play in the upcoming election, said Frelinghuysen "has always looked out for New Jersey, from environmental protection to the tremendous recovery needs after Hurricane Sandy."

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) also commended Frelinghuysen, saying, "Rodney has looked out for and made a positive difference in our state, especially as a member and now Chairman of the Appropriations Committee. From deepening the port, to funding flood management projects, to cleaning up our Passaic River, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish together in a bipartisan manner."

In his statement, Frelinghuysen said looking out for New Jersey has always been his goal: "During my time serving here there have been times of great tragedy including the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy on my home state. In my role on the House Appropriations Committee, I made sure that New Jersey's needs were met in both the immediate aftermath as well as over time in the wake of these events. I have proudly been able to secure key federal investments for New Jersey to strengthen our economy, our institutions of higher education, our hospitals and public transportation systems, to preserve open space and protect the environment and to better serve our veterans and our fellow citizens with mental illness and disabilities."

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