Never Too Early to Plan a House Race in 3 Targeted Republican Districts

Colleen O'Dea | August 4, 2017 | Politics
Democrats are already gearing up to take on Frelinghuysen, Lance, and MacArthur, but are their efforts strategic planning or wishful thinking?

U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th)
The election for the U.S. House of Representatives may be 15 months away, but the campaigns have already started, at least in the three Republican districts that political prognosticators consider vulnerable. Reps. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-11), Leonard Lance (R-7), and Tom MacArthur (R-3) are prime targets for Democrats, including the national Democratic organization, which is expected to pump huge sums into selected congressional campaigns next year.

As proof of Frelinghuysen’s sudden vulnerability, a group called NJ 11th for Change, released the results of a poll on Thursday that put the congressman almost 10 points behind an unnamed Democratic opponent. If that is true, it would be amazing. The 12-term congressman has easily won re-election every time he has been on the ballot – enjoying 58 percent of the vote last year – in a solidly red district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 15,000 and incumbents tend to lean right.

“Frelinghuysen’s pat line to constituents for years has been, ‘Rest assured I’ll keep your views in mind,’” said Elizabeth Juviler, an organizer for NJ 11th For Change, which paid for the poll and is looking to unseat Frelinghuysen. “The poll shows that either he doesn’t, or he’s ineffective in understanding the needs of the majority of citizens in his district.”

But both Frelinghuysen’s campaign and New Jersey political scientists questioned whether the poll is scientifically accurate and unbiased.

A partisan poll?

Michael DuHaime, a Republican political strategist working on the Frelinghuysen campaign, said the poll from a “partisan Democrat front group … gives a deliberately false impression to trick donors and reporters into thinking a race is closer than it is.  Rodney will defeat any candidate who faces him next year.”

Krista Jenkins, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll, had a less partisan concern. She said ReconMR, which conducted the poll, used a listed sample, rather than a probability sample and that could skew the results. Because a listed sample is conducted from a list, only those on the list have a chance of being called, as opposed to all registered voters in the district, which covers parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties. And because the list was of voters in 2014 and 2016, it may include people no longer registered to vote in the district and exclude people who have registered in the interim.

Still, given the current political climate, she said at least some of the responses to the poll questions would not be totally unexpected.

‘Animus’ toward Trump administration

“It seems reasonable, even for someone from a usually safe district, given the animus many people feel toward this administration” to receive negative reviews, she said. Among the poll’s findings, respondents did not support his vote to repeal and replace Obamacare and they found Frelinghuysen’s having told an employer about one of its employee’s political activism against him to be inappropriate.

Lauren Caiella, another member of NJ 11th for Change, defended the poll’s accuracy, saying the firm that conducted it is reputable and “followed gold standard protocols.”

The Cook Political Report recently categorized the Frelinghuysan race as competitive but “leaning Republican,” just one step above a tossup and putting it in play next year. Further, it said the new chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations is likely to have the first true election contest in a quarter of a century.

Well-funded challenger

He is also going to have his first well-funded challenger in Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor from Montclair. Although it is very early to compare warchests, according to the Federal Election Commission, Sherrill has already raised $246,000 and had $195,000 cash on hand as of June 30. Frelinghuysen currently has a substantial monetary advantage, with $976,000 in the bank after having raised nearly $1 million and spent $489,000.

The two other Republican congressmen facing opposition from groups opposed to Donald Trump’s policies, including the attempted repeal of the ACA and his stands on immigration are Lance and MacArthur. They are also both listed as competitive by the Cook Report, although MacArthur’s is called “likely Republican.”

In the 7th District in Central Jersey, Republican Rep. Leonard Lance has faced full audiences of vocal opponents at town halls and weekly protests outside his office this year. Four Democrats have already filed papers seeking to oppose him. Combined, they would have more cash on hand than Lance — $365,000 vs. Lance’s $351,000 as of June 30. The candidate with the most money is Lisa Mandelblatt, a teacher from Westfield who leads the group of challengers with $259,000 raised and $203,000 cash.

Leaning Republican

This district, which encompasses Hunterdon County, Millburn, and parts of Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties, is listed as only leaning Republican by Cook. Its registered votes are 31 percent Republican and 28 percent Democratic, with nearly all the rest unaffiliated. Last year, Lance won with 54 percent of the vote. The district, however, voted for Hillary Clinton. It was one of only 23 in the nation represented by Republicans that voted for Clinton. Lance won by an 11-point margin, while Clinton beat Trump by 1 point. By contrast, Republican Mitt Romney outpolled President Barack Obama by 6 points in this district in 2012.

Listed by Cook as likely Republican, although Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 12,000 registered, is the 3rd District in South Jersey. Covering parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, the district is represented by Republican Tom MacArthur, in his second term in Congress.

MacArthur, who was an architect of one of the House’s ACA repeal efforts, has also drawn the ire of many constituents. He already has two Democratic opponents: Andy Kim, who has so far raised $117,000, and Katherine Hartman, who has raised $32,000. MacArthur had $378,000 as of June 30, having raised $587,000 and spent $216,000 in the first half of this year.