The state’s most expensive and perhaps most closely watched congressional race has drawn millions of dollars in spending by outside groups and generated sharp attacks on a range of issues — from a wildfire in California to suburban construction permit fees.
In the 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Aimee Belgard and Republican Tom MacArthur are vying to succeed Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican who is retiring.
In what is expected to be a good year for Republican candidates nationally, the rare possibility of a Democratic pickup, MacArthur’s personal wealth, and the pricey New York-Philadelphia TV market have together led to nearly $10 million in overall spending.
That includes $1.4 million the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent on TV ads that attacked MacArthur by highlighting lawsuits and complaints against the company he formerly headed, York Risk Services Group. York allegedly low-balled insurance payments to victims of a California wildfire and Hurricane Ike, and was sued by Arizona firefighters over denied claims, though York only became involved in the firefighter case after MacArthur had left the company.
The battle to define MacArthur — either as a heartless corporate carpetbagger, as the DCCC and Belgard have tried to do, or as an enormously successful businessman and job creator, as he describes himself — has been central to the race, along with MacArthur’s counterattacks over the ads’ allegedly defamatory claims.
The Democratic strategy initially seemed to be working, as a Stockton College poll in September found the candidates tied at 42 percent each, despite the 3rd District’s slight Republican leanings.
“It’s clear that (MacArthur) either doesn’t understand, or he doesn’t care, how his actions affect other people, which is why so many hardworking people are rejecting him,” Belgard campaign manager Hannah Ledford said in September. “This race is tied despite the millions he’s spent trying to buy this election because the people in Burlington and Ocean counties recognize how utterly out of touch he is.”
But the DCCC’s tactics may have misfired. Factcheck.org explained that one commercial contained misleading and inaccurate information and MacArthur threatened to sue for defamation, leading to the ads being pulled.
MacArthur pointed out that Belgard, too, has strong insurance industry ties, having worked for years for a law firm used by insurers. And he spent millions of dollars on his own commercials that accused her of lying about her votes on tax increases and other issues.
A Monmouth University poll released in mid-October gave MacArthur a 10-point lead, 51-41, supporting his claims to a broad base of support.
“The external polling and our internal polling suggest that my message is resonating with voters,” he said in a recent interview. “I think people believe I’m the best candidate to address all the issues — the economy, immigration, health care — working across party lines to actually get things done, which is sort of the bedrock of building a business.”
Flawed attack ads
The district, which covers portions of Burlington and Ocean counties, is the state’s most competitive, based on party registration numbers, with Burlington leaning Democratic and Ocean tending to vote Republican.
The Monmouth poll found MacArthur leading 58-33 percent among district voters in Ocean County and tied 46-46 with Belgard in Burlington County. He had higher overall favorability ratings, and voters said he would do a better job on taxes, military issues and veterans issues. Belgard was heavily favored on women’s issues.
The attack on MacArthur’s business record began with his primary opponent, Steve Lonegan, who tried to link MacArthur to concerns about Superstorm Sandy insurance claims.
A Republican operative wrote a Daily Mail article about complaints against York Risk Services Group, describing two lawsuits following Hurricane Ike and a settlement with the state of California over the fire claims. After Lonegan ran commercials alluding to the complaints and the firefighter lawsuit, MacArthur argued that his critics were picking out a few contested claims from over a million claims that the company had processed, and pointed out that the firefighter issue arose after he had left York.
The DCCC subsequently picked up the storyline and produced three TV commercials. One showed a Sandy victim complaining about her insurance company and accused MacArthur of “cheating” victims of other disasters; another vaguely linked the cheating line to his positions on health insurance; and a third concerned the firefighter lawsuit.
Factcheck.org picked apart the ad that mentioned health insurance. MacArthur demanded that the commercial about the firefighters be pulled, and threatened to sue the DCCC over alleged defamatory statements in both ads. And despite the ad barrage, the Monmouth poll found MacArthur and Belgard tied when voters were asked who would do better at helping Superstorm Sandy victims.
MacArthur criticized Belgard for not disavowing the ads, while she said she had nothing to do with them and said concerns about his career background are valid in the context of Sandy victims’ insurance problems. While the DCCC has led the attacks, Belgard has occasionally alluded to the charges, calling MacArthur “a disaster profiteer in a district where people are struggling” during a discussion on NJTV.
Her campaign also highlighted a class-action lawsuit filed by some 120 current and former York employees, who allege the company failed to pay them overtime during the time when MacArthur was CEO.
MacArthur argued that any discussion of his career should focus on his successes.
“To take three claims out of more a million that were handled when I was CEO of York, to try to take an overtime issue which is unresolved and make it seem like it’s been resolved, and not in my favor, that’s just deceptive,” he said. “What they’re doing is trying to hide the fact that I created thousands of jobs, and they’re trying to distract from what I think is a strong point of comparison between my opponent and I.”
For its part, MacArthur’s campaign created a website called FreeholderBelgard.com that goes after the Democrat on a number of issues, including Belgard’s own experience as a lawyer in insurance cases. Belgard says she mostly represented insured parties, “the people who needed a voice,” whileMacArthur argues that most of the cases Belgard handled were paid for by insurance companies, making her criticisms of his insurance career “disingenuous.”
Digging into local politics
In addition to their work histories, the candidates’ experience in local politics has come up in attack ads and debates.
MacArthur’s commercials and websites call Belgard a liar for saying at one point that she never raised taxes. He says property taxes and a small business tax increased in Edgewater Park when she was on the township committee, and that she supported a proposed tax increase as a Burlington County freeholder.
However, when she said she had never voted to raise taxes, in 2010, her statement was apparently true; it was only later that she voted for the tax increases he refers to. Belgard says the business tax MacArthur mentioned was a construction permit fee that was hiked as the township adopted a state fee schedule. She notes that MacArthur voted for annual tax increases when he served as a councilman and mayor in Randolph.
MacArthur’s commercials also attack Belgard for saying she would not take a freeholder salary but then later accepting pay for the job. The promise came during an election that she lost; she did not repeat the vow during her successful freeholder run two years later.
Belgard’s campaign frequently refers to MacArthur as a “North Jersey CEO” in an effort to label him as a carpetbagger. MacArthur, who purchased a home in Toms River this year, dismissed the characterization, saying he has owned a second home in Ocean County (though outside the 3rd District) for nine years. He argued that Belgard’s residence “on the Delaware River” does not give her “special insight” into the district.
A lopsided fundraising race
If MacArthur is winning the mudslinging battle, he may have his hefty war chest to thank. As of October 15 he had loaned his campaign $5 million and raised another $537,000 in contributions, of which he had spent $4.4 million, leaving $1.1 million cash on hand.
His donors include former York colleagues and various other individuals, as well as PACs for insurance companies and related industries, credit unions, realtors, auto dealers, Republican groups, and a number of Republican congressional candidates around the country.
His campaign has spent at least $3.3 million on advertising, and three outside groups — Crossroads GPS, American Action Network, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have together spent another $2 million on commercials attacking Belgard.
Belgard raised $1.5 million through mid-October and spent about $1.2 million, ending the period with $368,000 in the bank. Lacking a significant primary opponent, she ran no commercials until relatively late in the race, but in the period from August through mid-October she spent over $700,000 on TV and related expenses. The DCCC also spent about $1.4 million on ads attacking MacArthur.
Belgard’s commercials include one that introduces her and says she’ll “break the Tea Party fever,” while another touts her empathy for the middle class and people with health insurance issues, and a third criticizes “CEO Tom MacArthur” for his positions on equal pay and abortion.
Much of Belgard’s fundraising came as individual contributions funneled by Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates and provided about $800,000 in the third quarter of 2014.
A total of $9.8 million has been spent on the 3rd Congressional District race so far, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer tool. That amount includes outside spending and spending by various primary candidates.