U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd) has held his seat in Congress for nine terms despite one counter-intuitive fact: The district counts more registered Democrats than Republicans.
While registration data show the gap between the parties has narrowed since last year’s redrawing of district lines, there are still 9,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
And with a late-September Richard Stockton College of New Jersey poll showing LoBiondo has a 62 percent favorability rating and beats his closest opponent, Democrat Cassandra Shober, by a 20-point margin, political observers expect no deviation from the past.
“He’s got the seat as long as he wants,” predicted The Cook Report House Editor David Wasserman.
“That’s the one district that would be most likely to change parties if the incumbent decided not to run,” added John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University. “But LoBiondo is a legislator who’s pretty well regarded. The general perception is that he’s doing a good job.”
In addition to Shober, LoBiondo faces four other opponents in the general election Nov. 6, John Ordille, a Libertarian, and independents David Bowen, Frank Faralli Jr., and Charles Lukens.
Some of these challengers are trying to gain an advantage by painting LoBiondo as too conservative for the district’s relatively moderate population.
“My opponent has voted to protect companies that ship jobs overseas. My opponent voted against the stimulus package. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood and voted against the Libby Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” said Shober, a 46-year-old Margate resident who manages her husband’s law office.
Though true, these votes don’t reflect the entirety of LoBiondo’s voting record. According to the Washington Post, the 66-year-old congressman from Ventnor votes with his party 83 percent of the time, making him what GovTrack.com calls a “Centrist Republican.” The highest favorability rating he has received from any women’s organization tracked by Project Vote Smart since 1998, the first year listed in its public database, was 70 percent. But the National Journal’s scores on his social, economic and foreign policies split almost evenly between conservative and liberal.
His moderate stance is perhaps the only way he’s been able to hold on to his seat for so long. The South Jersey district, which is the largest and poorest in the state, spans a diverse range of farming communities, Shore towns, rapidly growing suburbs, the Pine Barrens and Atlantic City. Covering all of Salem, Cumberland, Cape May and Atlantic counties, half of Gloucester and parts of Ocean and Burlington counties, it contains “pockets of Democrats and a very strong Republican presence,” said Ingrid Reed, former New Jersey Project Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
The incumbent may also gain an advantage from the district’s sprawling size, said Daniel Douglas, director of Stockton’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. He said it’s more difficult to meet voters in such a large district and that LoBiondo benefits from 18 years of traveling through the region while in office.
“The congressman enjoys superior name recognition,” Douglas said. “He’s had opportunity to visit his constituents across his district and, by contrast, Shober is introducing herself.”
More than half of voters in the 2nd District were unfamiliar with Shober as of the late September polling, which can be partially attributed to her financial disadvantage against a well-funded incumbent.
According to Federal Elections Commission (FEC) filings, Shober had raised $51,600 by Sept. 30, while LoBiondo had raised almost $1.5 million. Lukens, a socially conservative prayer-in-schools advocate from Ventnor who worked as a nurse and an Army intelligence officer before retiring, had raised less than $1,400. The remaining three candidates had not reported, an indication they’d also raised less than the $5,000 threshold for mandated filing.
But the challengers also face another obstacle in the effort to introduce themselves to voters: the lack of a scheduled debate.
For the second campaign season in a row, LoBiondo has declined to debate any of his challengers, turning down an invitation from Stockton College to take on Shober. His campaign staff claims this is because Shober is not a serious candidate.
Campaign manager Ron Filan was quoted in published reports as saying the campaign doesn’t believe Shober “has shown her seriousness to this campaign nor the office for which she seeks.”
Campaign spokesperson Jason Galanes explained that campaign staffers came to this conclusion because, “Shober is not listed anywhere on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) website or in their tandem materials.”
It is true that the DCCC does not list Shober on its website, meaning it does not consider the 2nd District to be one of the nation’s most competitive, but that’s not unusual for New Jersey, where the DCCC considers only the neighboring 3rd District competitive and the 7th District “emerging.” Shober, who beat two lesser-known opponents in the primary, says despite this, the DCCC lends support by advising her on policy statements and providing her with over-the-phone consultations. This, she said, helps prove the validity — and viability — of her campaign.
“I think it’s insulting to the people of the Second Congressional District,” Shober said of her opponent’s refusal to debate her. “He may justify it by saying I’m not a viable candidate but I won the primary … It’s important that people hear the issues so they’re able to make the best decisions. The congressman doesn’t want to debate me but I’m going to fight to get the message out.”
Bowen, a small-business owner and former volunteer fire fighter from Pittsgrove running as an independent, is also concerned about the implications of LoBiondo’s refusal to debate, even though neither he nor other candidates were even invited to participate.
“What we’re finding is if you’re not a Republican or Democrat, you’re not mainstream,” said Bowen, who advocates for deficit and tax reduction while supporting pay increases for police, firefighters and teachers, increased spending on infrastructure and greater regulation of polluting industries. “In the polling, they’re not necessarily concerned about us, and our most high-profile candidate is refusing to debate. In a way it’s voter suppression. If you’re not including all the candidates, you’re limiting voters’ ability to vote.”
Douglas, however, said that although it’s unusual for an incumbent to refuse to debate a challenger when the invitation is made by a respected and neutral third party, it isn’t likely to cost LoBiondo many votes, especially given that it’s more typical for incumbents to avoid debates and for challengers to seek them.
“For challengers, if you stand on the same stage with the candidate, you are elevated in prestige. So incumbents want fewer debates,” he said.
Without a debate forum and without much money, the remaining candidates are struggling to spread the word about their candidacies. Bowen, Lukens and John Ordille, a UPS truck driver from Northfield who’s running primarily to inform people about the Libertarian platform, all boast robust websites. Faralli maintains no web presence and has not responded to inquiries from any news media.
Faralli, Lukens and Ordille did not return requests for comment.