In the Congressional race that is arguably the closest and most expensive in New Jersey this fall, Republican candidate Tom MacArthur may be betting that Democratic Party campaign videos attacking his record as a former insurance executive represent his best chance of bringing down his Democratic opponent, Aimee Belgard.
At the first debate for the Congressional 3rd District election on November 4, MacArthur repeated charges that Belgard is benefiting from what he said were “defamatory” statements about him in two campaign videos made by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“You are going to hear my opponent parroting talking points from her national handlers in Washington DC,” MacArthur, who is self-funding his campaign, told an audience of about 400 at the William Allen Middle School in Moorestown on Thursday evening. “My opponent is getting the advantage from other people corrupting my good name.”
He said the videos, which were withdrawn after threatened lawsuits by the MacArthur campaign, were examples of the corrupting influence of money on politics.
The candidates were tied with 42.2 percent of the vote each, according to a poll of 606 likely voters, taken from September 12-14, according to the Stockton Polling Institute of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Although the poll indicated that the race for retiring Republican Rep. Jon Runyan’s seat was too close to call, it also showed that MacArthur’s “favorable” ratings among voters were higher than Belgard’s, while the Republican had a lower “unfavorable” rating.
MacArthur’s funding makes the race among the most expensive in the state. Federal Election Commission data lists MacArthur with total receipts of $3.118 million, $3 million of which are loans from himself, as of June 30, about twice that of Republican incumbent Frank LoBiondo in the Second District, and more than three times the $922,424 listed for Democrat Donald Norcross in the First District.
In the Third District, Belgard’s total receipts as of June 30 are listed as $826,504, according to the FEC.
In the debate, Belgard avoided directly responding to MacArthur’s charge that she is being helped by false claims in the videos, switching quickly to an anecdote about a supporter who she said had given her last $9 to Belgard’s campaign.
MacArthur responded: “I will take that as a no — that Aimee Belgard does not wish to disavow the lies that are coming out of Washington D.C.”
Belgard’s campaign manager, Hannah Ledford, did not say why Belgard did not answer MacArthur’s charges, but argued that the Republican has failed to refute accusations that as an insurance executive, he underpaid or delayed claims.
“These issues have been raised time and time again over the course of this campaign, with no denial from him or his handlers,” Ledford wrote in an email on Friday morning.
The videos, viewed on YouTube, claim that MacArthur, former chief executive of York Risk Services Group, a Trenton-based insurance company, profited by denying insurance payouts to victims of natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy.
One of the videos, titled “Devastation,” interviews a Sandy victim who said she had lost everything in the storm and had paid flood-insurance premiums for 23 years but received only “pennies” from an insurer in response to her post-storm claims.
“Too many families have to fight insurance companies every day,” says a voiceover in the video. “Like the company insurance CEO Tom MacArthur ran, accused of cheating victims of similar disasters. MacArthur made millions, and now he wants to go to Congress where he’ll let insurance companies jack up our rates.”
Asked whether Belgard endorsed statements in the videos, Ledford said: “The ads he continues to discuss are not from this campaign, and it would be illegal for Aimee or anyone else from the campaign to coordinate on any level.”
MacArthur’s campaign manager, Frank Luna, said the “Devastation” video was previously titled “Deny”. He said it was taken off TV in response to the threatened lawsuit, and was changed so that it accused MacArthur’s former company, not the candidate personally, of mistreating insurance claimants.
The video is now back on TV, Luna said, and is viewable on YouTube. The other video, titled “Fire” has been permanently withdrawn, he said.
During the debate, hosted by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, the Republican accused Belgard of voting for a “jobs tax” when she was a member of the Edgewater Park Township Committee, starting in 2009.
Belgard did not address the charge directly, saying only that she recognized the importance of job creation by small businesses such as that run by her husband.
The Democrat, now a Burlington County Freeholder, argued that small businesses should pay lower taxes, have better access to capital, and have extra tax credits for startup costs.
Both candidates sought to present themselves as compassionate people with tough personal stories: in MacArthur’s case, the death of a handicapped daughter at the age of 11, and for Belgard, the deaths of both parents from cancer, leading her to become an executive with the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Action Network.
MacArthur signaled support for some policies such as spending on public infrastructure, and offering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, that may attract wavering Democrats.
“We’re not going to deport 11 million people who are here illegally,” MacArthur said, in response to a prepared question from the audience. “We’re not going to break up families.”
He also backed public education, saying that he and his children were educated in public schools, but argued that it should mostly be controlled by state and local governments, and that the federal government should focus on promoting vocational schools.
At a local level, charter schools should be encouraged as an alternative to challenged public systems, MacArthur said. “No child should be trapped in a failing school district,” he said.
On immigration, Belgard called for a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but said applicants should have to pay back taxes, and that citizenship should not be open to people with criminal records.
Asked how she would deal with Congressional gridlock between intransigent partisans, Belgard argued that she has voted against her own party when necessary, and would do so again.
“Congress is an absolute mess and that’s why I’m running,” she said. “I’m perfectly willing to agree with my Republican colleagues when they have a good idea. I’ve done it as a Burlington County Freeholder and I will do it in Congress.”
MacArthur said his business background showed that he is able to get results from disparate parties, and noted that his campaign has had backing from both business and labor unions.
Asked for his position on marriage equality, MacArthur said marriage should continue to be defined as a union of one man and one woman, but that the principle of equality for all people should also be upheld.
Belgard argued that legislators should not decide who can marry whom. “People should be able to love each other and be married if they want to,” she said.