New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District has one of the few Republican seats up for grabs in this year’s election — not just in New Jersey but nationally.
The district is considered a toss-up, as it voted for President Barack Obama in the past two presidential elections but also elected U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R-Mount Laurel) four years ago.
Runyan, who has served two terms, is not seeking reelection.
Democratic organizations are hopeful they can flip the district and have given their support to Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, a former Edgewater Park councilwoman who rode Obama’s coattails to an upset freeholder win in 2012.
Belgard, 40, has locked up key endorsements from the Burlington and Ocean County Democratic committees and was given priority status by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, which funnels campaign contributions to pro-choice women Democrats.
Citing economic issues as voters’ main concern, Belgard said in an interview that her top issues are improving recovery efforts for victims of superstorm Sandy and preventing a future Base Closure and Realignment Commission from potentially shuttering parts of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
“There’s a current fear that the Joint Base, which is the second-largest employer in this state, and the largest employer in South Jersey, may face another BRAC process potentially in 2017,” she said. “Or even worse than that, may face decommissioning of certain missions there, which may ultimately result in basically padlocking the base, which would just be extremely detrimental to the folks in this district and even surrounding areas.”
Her Democratic opponents are Howard Kleinhendler, a Lakewood attorney who ran in the 4th Congressional District in 2010, and Bruce Todd, a Lyndon LaRouche activist.
Steve Lonegan and Tom MacArthur are vying for the Republican nomination.
Kleinhendler, 51, an ordained Orthodox rabbi turned New York litigator, has positioned himself to the left of Belgard. He defends the Affordable Care Act, advocates creating a public option through Medicare, and is calling for increasing Sandy aid, taxing corporations’ overseas revenue, giving amnesty to undocumented workers and boosting veterans benefits.
A Lakewood resident, he would have to move to the 3rd District if he won the seat. In 2010, he challenged the 4th District’s longtime congressman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Robbinsville), earning 28 percent of the votes to Smith’s 66 percent.
Todd, 64, a retired millwright from Ocean Township, ran for lieutenant governor last year and said he previously ran for office on a LaRouche ticket in the 1970s. He’s calling for Wall Street reform, Obama’s impeachment and more nuclear power plants.
Belgard has ignored her primary rivals and run a low-key campaign so far, with little media spending and no television commercials. That has allowed her to save her funds for the general election, when candidates will have to spend heavily in both the Philadelphia and New York TV markets.
With help from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who headlined a February fundraiser for her and two other candidates in Philadelphia, Belgard has raised over $400,000, with $230,000 coming in the first quarter of 2014. She received about $121,000 from the Democrats’ AmeriPAC and other political action committees.
Belgard had $326,000 in the bank and had spent $77,000 as of March 31, including $10,000 on a fundraising consultant.
By contrast, MacArthur, who was ahead of Lonegan in a recent Monmouth University poll, has already loaned his campaign $2 million and run several commercials.
“The Democrats rallying around Belgard, and avoiding an expensive primary that the Republicans are engaged in, matters here even more than in other districts,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Belgard is able to conserve her resources.”
While she declined to discuss Kleinhendler, Belgard has begun working to motivate her base with attacks on House Republicans. Last month she took aim at Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, criticizing proposals to flatten tax rates, turn Medicare into a voucher program and cut education funding.
“This budget proposal could mean that a family trying to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy destroyed their lives could actually see their taxes go up. That’s simply unacceptable,” she said in a press release. “We must work together to find ways to balance the budget without crippling job creation, slashing Medicare and raising taxes on middle-class families.”
An attorney and the daughter of a Vietnam vet, Belgard said she would also work to improve services for veterans and defend Social Security and Medicare, while bringing a woman’s voice to the state delegation. New Jersey has not had a female House representative in more than a decade and has never had a woman senator.
Belgard lost both her parents to cancer and served on the board of the American Cancer Society Eastern Division, which led to her entry into politics. She and her husband have two young sons.
Kleinhendler argued that voters do not know Belgard, especially in Ocean County, and said she has failed to take meaningful positions that will motivate voters.
“I’m the better candidate to stand up to the Republicans,” he said. “I don’t think she can go toe-to-toe in debates with whoever emerges, whether it’s Lonegan or MacArthur. I don’t think she has the skills or the backbone really to stand up for the platform that I think is going to win.”
But Belgard said she is well-known in Burlington County and has been doing frequent outreach in Ocean County.
“People are absolutely starting to get to know my name,” she said. “I’ve been at events recently where I’ve had people approach me and say, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve been waiting to meet you.’ I think people are really receptive to this race out there.”
In addition, Belgard has experience persevering through tough elections. The Burlington County freeholder board has been dominated by Republicans for decades, and in her first run in 2010 she lost to a Republican incumbent by 4 points, or more than 5,000 votes.
When she ran again two years later, in an expensive race noted for negative TV ads, she and another Democrat romped to victory over much better-funded Republicans who received contributions from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s Super PAC. Belgard was the top vote-getter with 26 percent, or over 100,000 votes, while the two Republicans garnered fewer than 92,000 each.
President Obama was at the top of the ticket in 2012, helping the Democratic field. Dworkin noted that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker will be running for his first full term this fall, which could motivate some Democrats to go to the polls again, but the Obama assist will be gone.
“2014 is obviously not a presidential year,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle for Belgard.”
The 3rd District is the state’s most competitive by party registration, with 27 percent of voters registered as Democrats, 25 percent Republicans and 48 percent unaffiliated.
President Obama won the district twice, but local voters split their ballots in 2012, reelecting Runyan by a 9-point margin. He bested Democrat Shelly Adler, whose late husband Jon Adler had been ousted by Runyan in a narrower vote two years earlier.
One issue Belgard has not highlighted but which is sure to figure into the general election is the Affordable Care Act. Lonegan and MacArthur have made the law’s repeal central to their campaigns.
In a November radio interview with Belgard, WPHT talk show host Dom Giordano criticized Belgard for giving vague responses to complaints about the law. The National Republican Congressional Committee picked up on his comments to attack her.
Belgard said she’s aware of the problems with the ACA and advocates improving transparency efforts, small business options and the CHIP program for children. But she also said voters appreciate the ACA’s coverage guarantees, and cited examples of uninsured people who could not afford cancer treatment and a teenage leukemia survivor whose coverage for chemotherapy-related surgery was limited by payment caps.
“People understand that, and they don’t want to turn back the clock on that,” she said. “It’s more of an issue of what we can do to fix the Affordable Care Act going forward, as opposed to repealing it like my opponents on the other side are seeking to do.”
Belgard’s website barely mention healthcare reform, but Kleinhendler has seized on the issue, describing the Affordable Care Act as “a step in the right direction.” In addition to advocating a public option, he argues for improving tax benefits for small businesses and individuals who buy health insurance and other reforms.
“I think it is a strength,” he said of the law. “I believe the best defense is an offense. As opposed to what Ms. Belgard has done, I think we hold up the Obamacare banner, point out the good things it’s done and show how we’re going to make it better and address the criticism. That’s the play.”
Kleinhendler loaned his campaign $11,000 in the first quarter and received $2,700 in contributions. He has spent about $6,000 and has $8,000 cash on hand.
Todd, a resident of the Waretown section of Ocean Township, ran for lieutenant governor with independent gubernatorial candidate Diane Sare last year. He said he previously ran for state Assembly and Congress on LaRouche’s U.S. Labor Party ticket four decades ago.
In his platform, Todd prioritizes restoration of the Glass-Steagall separation of commercial and investment banking to curtail Wall Street speculation and prevent future recessions, and the impeachment of President Obama for what Todd portrays as dangerous provocations of Russia and China. He also favors building hundreds of nuclear power plants and supports work at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab to develop clean fusion energy.
Todd, who has not filed federal campaign finance reports, said it is difficult for an independent candidate like himself to get exposure. He said he frequently talks with voters on the street and attends political, labor and community events to introduce himself.
“The point is to get out and to really rally the people of the country to turn the country around,” he said. “Because clearly we’re very much on the edge of extinction as a nation.”
The candidates’ websites are [link:www.belgardforcongress.com], [link:www.hkcongress.com] and [link:www.toddforcongress.com].