As New Jersey voters trudged through the afternoon rain Tuesday, ready to cast their votes and thereby bring to an end to hotly contested electoral races across the state, another battleground contest was just beginning — this one in South Jersey’s 2nd congressional district, where U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo announced he will be retiring next year.
The news, which came amid a gubernatorial and legislative election season from which Democrats emerged triumphant, has political observers and insiders already turning their attention to the future. A 12-term Republican incumbent, LoBiondo was expected to retire soon, but the suddenness of the decision caught some observers by surprise.
So did the way the congressman delivered it. In a statement, LoBiondo cited the “increasing political polarization” that has lately consumed officials in Washington, D.C., lamenting that there is “no longer middle ground to honestly debate issues and put forward solutions.” The pessimistic appraisal of the country’s governing apparatus was especially meaningful coming from LoBiondo, a centrist Republican who’s spent the last 20 years in Congress working to build bridges across party lines.
“Those of us who came to Congress to change Washington for the better through good governance are now the outliers,” LoBiondo said. “In legislating, we previously fought against allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Today a vocal and obstinate minority within both parties has hijacked good legislation in pursuit of no legislation.”
The news ultimately opens up a new battle point for Democrats and Republicans going into next year’s midterm elections, and this week set in motion speculation about the incumbent’s possible replacements. Democrats have circulated state Senator Jeff Van Drew in the 1st legislative district as a potential candidate, while Republicans could field someone like Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown, who just won election to the state senate in the 2nd district.
“With an open seat like this, I think we can expect a very competitive race,” said Ben Dworkin, director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Another Trump casualty?
Democrats in particular voiced excitement at the prospect of LoBiondo’s retirement, seizing on it as an opportunity to continue the momentum they built up last night, when former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy handily defeated Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno to replace outgoing Gov. Chris Christie. The party also picked up a handful of seats in the Assembly and Senate, expanding its majority and thus control over the Legislature.
The results were seen as an overwhelming win for Democrats, many of whose candidates this year sought to cast their campaigns as referendums on Christie, whose approval rating is now among the lowest of any sitting governor in state history, and President Donald Trump, who’s facing similarly poor numbers on the national level. Officials suggested the factors that helped carry them to victory last night were the same ones motivating Republicans like LoBiondo to step aside.
“It’s another casualty of the Trump era,” said Michael Suleiman, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Party. “All these Republicans just can’t serve anymore because they’ve got a president who’s embarrassing us and embarrassing them, and they can’t get anything done. So, you know it’s sad when a longtime elected official like LoBiondo is saying, forget this, I’m out of here.”
LoBiondo did not name Trump specifically as the culprit of the partisanship he sees happening, but the timing of his announcement may suggest the controversial president has had something to do with it. LoBiondo was also one of the few Republicans in Congress who refused to support Trump in his bid for the presidency during much of last year, calling him “unfit” for the office and threatening to pencil in Trump’s then-running mate, Vice President Mike Pence.
He eventually reversed that position and voted for the frontrunner, but hasn’t appeared afraid to exercise his independence from Trump — he has broken with him several times on various issues since Trump took office, including on last month’s congressional budget resolution targeting the deduction for state and local taxes and the earlier health care bill. According to FiveThirtyEight, LoBiondo votes with the president roughly 80 percent of the time, which is actually on the lower end of the spectrum for house members.
LoBiondo easily won re-election
A member of the Tuesday Group caucus, a faction of moderate Republicans known for making many of the governing decisions in Congress, LoBiondo also joins several other longtime GOP members who have opted against seeking re-election next year, including Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Washington Rep. Dave Reichert, and Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who also cited partisan gridlock as reason for his departure.
Still, Dworkin noted that it’s not uncommon for representatives from one party to decline re-election during years in which the electoral climate might be perceived as unfavorable for them. LoBiondo has safely held down the district over the course of his tenure, easily fending off his most recent challenges in candidates like Bill Hughes, Jr., in 2014 and David Cole in 2016. But New Jersey’s rejection of the president’s politics may have made his re-election next year slightly more difficult, as it’s had for other entrenched Republican incumbents in the state.
U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, who has seen a backlash from Democratic voters and activists in recent months over his proximity to Trump and his policies, is expected to face a credible opponent in the 7th district. So is U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who’s been similarly targeted, in the 11th.
“Given Donald Trump’s low approval rating in New Jersey and nationally, the 2018 midterm is shaping up to be a strong one for the Democrats,” Dworkin said. “And in these kinds of years we see a sort of self-selection among the people who are running or not running.”
But chances of success might be greater in the 2nd, the largest geographic district in the state and a true swing district by many measures. Encompassing parts of Cumberland, Ocean, and Atlantic counties, the 2nd district actually tends blue on paper, with over 128,000 registered Democrats to 119,000 registered Republicans and over 200,000 unaffiliated voters. (It includes parts of the 3rd legislative district, where Democrats, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney, hold all three seats, as well as the 1st, where the party exerts similar control.)
Democrats hope that by fielding the right candidate and collectively getting behind them early on, they’ll be able to gain the edge in the race. Suleiman said that would help avoid a “bloody primary” of the kind that could play out in Lance’s district, where several Democratic candidates have already announced campaigns against the incumbent.
“I don’t think it helps anything,” Suleiman said. “I think we’ve got a golden opportunity here, and a lot of times when we have golden opportunities Democrats have a funny way of screwing it up. But I don’t think we should have a long, drawn-out primary — I think all of us, meaning all of South Jersey and the counties in the district, should come together and coalesce around one person,” he added.
While it’s too early to say definitively who that candidate might be, the odds-on favorite already seems to be Van Drew, who said Tuesday that he is seriously considering a run. The popular South Jersey official won re-election to his seat in the 1st district Tuesday night along with Assembly running mates Bruce Land and Bob Andrzejczak, taking 65 percent to his opponent’s 34 percent of the vote.
Van Drew already the frontrunner?
“There is a good chance that I will run,” Van Drew told NJ Spotlight yesterday. “I just literally got off of my election last night, so I do just want to decompress for a few days here, have a little fun with my family and so forth, but I am very seriously considering it. I believe it’s a real opportunity for us to move forward hopefully in South Jersey and New Jersey.”
A moderate — he uses the label conservative — Democrat himself, Van Drew has represented the district since 2008. Like LoBiondo, he said he’s made it a point to work with members from both parties, passing legislation to control prescription drug errors, enforce the ban on self-service gasoline stations, and protect against predatory lending. He said he’s not so much concerned with turning the district blue as bringing capable leadership to Congress.
“I believe that’s what’s helped me, and that’s the attitude I have, and that’s the attitude I’d have going into this election,” he said. “It isn’t so much, gee I’m there because now Democrats are going to move forward and take over, and now we’re going to have x number of years when Republicans have nothing to say and Democrats will do whatever they want. That isn’t the government, that’s not what people want.”
Van Drew had considered running for LoBiondo’s seat in 2014, when Land and Andrzejczak were running for the Assembly, but not nearly as seriously as he is now, he said. He also said that he remains undeterred by the picture LoBiondo painted of Washington as dysfunctional; in fact, it’s one of the reasons that could convince him to commit to a run.
“Do I believe that one new congressperson is going to change all that? Obviously not,” he said. “But there’s the old joke, how do you eat an elephant — one bite at a time. And I think we better start taking some chunks out of this and turn this country around.”
Backing from Norcross
A major figure in the legislature’s South Jersey caucus, Van Drew, should he enter the race, will have the backing of the powerful George Norcross III, who told Politico on Tuesday that he has pledged his full support. That includes funding from the kind of super PACs that helped return Sweeney, another Norcross ally, to his seat in the 3rd district this week despite fierce fighting from the New Jersey Education Association.
Suleiman too said he would support Van Drew, should he win the party’s nomination. “Jeff would be a very strong candidate,” he said. “We need someone who can appeal to the broad electorate. I’m not saying they can’t be progressive, and I believe we need more progressive leaders, but we need people who can win in Cumberland County, in Cape May County, and in Atlantic County.”
But Republicans will have an equally strong claim to the seat. Observers note that the Ocean County portion of the district, as well as some parts of Atlantic County, remain heavily conservative, and that a candidate with the right name recognition could have a good shot. Republican names that have been floated as possibilities include Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, who ran against the late Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan for the Senate seat in the 2nd legislative district and failed in 2013, and Brown, who won that seat this week after beating opponent Colin Bell.
Like LoBiondo, Brown has deep labor ties in the district, which would be invaluable in a congressional race, particularly in the form of funding. Much of LoBiondo’s campaign war chest was made up of contributions from public and private sector unions, including Unite Here and the National Education Association.
LoBiondo’s not the only South Jersey congressman to throw in the towel in recent years: another was former U.S. Rep. John Runyan, who retired from his post in the 3rd district in 2014 and was succeeded by current U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur. Dworkin said ultimately, it’s part of a trend toward a deteriorating political system in the U.S.
“I think it’s the latest casualty in broken politics,” Dworkin said. “Trump is just the dysfunction we see today, the latest version of it. But it’s really frustrating to be in Congress. Most of these people go to Washington because they want to make a difference, and for a whole bunch of reasons, some personality-based and some systemic, it’s really hard to do that. So, whether it’s John Runyan, who just said ‘I’m done,’ or it’s Frank LoBiondo, who says ‘I don’t need this anymore,’ we see that frustration continuing to bubble.”