New Jerseyans can expect an onslaught of political mailers, robocalls, and television and radio ads this year as the state becomes a flashpoint for what’s shaping up to be the most contentious congressional election in more than a generation. And at the end of it, New Jersey could turn almost completely blue.
Already, 38 candidates are running for the state’s 12 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and that’s after three others have already dropped out. Twenty-nine of the declared candidates are Democrats. No Republicans have yet declared in seven districts, so the total number of candidates is likely to be even higher. Two years ago, 37 Democrats and Republicans vied in the House primary. The primary election takes place on June 5 and the general election on November 6.
Continuing ire over the results of the 2016 presidential race is fueling nearly all of the election furor in this predominantly blue state. A number of groups that formed since Donald Trump became president have been actively working to change the representation in traditionally Republican districts; that has led to especially large fields of challengers in two — the sprawling 7th in North-Central Jersey, currently held by Leonard Lance and the adjacent 11th, represented by Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Matthew Hale, professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, described some of what has been driving the climate in those districts, in particular.
“Both the 7th and 11th have a lot of suburban moms who took Hillary Clinton’s loss personally,” he said. “They are active and angry in ways we haven’t seen before.”
A ‘wave’ election
Observers say a “wave” election could leave the state with only one Republican representative: Chris Smith, the 37-year congressman whose heavily Republican 4th district encompasses parts of Mercer, Monmouth, and Ocean counties. On the other hand, a turnaround for the GOP could return the state to a 6-6 split — if the 5th District, now held by Democrat Josh Gottheimer, goes back to Republican hands.
“It is a good climate for Democrats, particularly in the Northeast,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “A lot will depend on the quality of the Democratic candidates in each race … Dems would be wise to have good candidates on tap in each district and GOP incumbents should be prepared for the battle of their political lives.”
It makes for an exciting campaign year, should voters decide to pay attention. Whether they will is unclear: This so-called mid-term election has the House topping the ballot and turnout has been lower and lower in the past few years, much lower in off-year elections. The last time House seats led balloting, in 2010, 42 percent of registered voters turned out. Four years ago, when Democrat Cory Booker won his first full term in the U.S. Senate, running just above House members, only 36 percent of voters cast ballots.
But this year should be different. The recent women’s march demonstrated how women, in particular, plan to go to the polls and vote Republicans out of office. There are also a number of national groups working to unseat Republicans in swing districts, from Indivisible to Swing Left. Every Republican congressional district has at least one organized local group working against Republicans — and some have more. These groups include NJ11thforchange.org, NJ7Citizens4Change, and NJ7thForward, among others.
For the most part, however, these groups are not backing candidates in the primary, and other than organizing and planning for get-out-the-vote efforts, they are holding fire until after the primary election.
Turnout, and more specifically, which parties or candidates can get the people to vote, could make the difference in several races projected to be very close this year.
Topping that list is U.S. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen’s 11th District seat. The 23-year representative from Morris County, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, took the unusual step of voting against the recent federal tax overhaul bill — although as Appropriations Chair, he voted to release the bill to the floor. He has cast some other votes counter to GOP majority wishes to try to placate his constituents, who reside in parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties. These residents tend to be wealthy, well-educated, and less conservative than Frelinghuysen’s voting record. In what previously was a reliable district for the GOP, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percent in 2016. The Cook Political Report has rated the 11th one of the 17 most vulnerable Republican districts in the country this year.
A December poll by Public Policy Polling for liberal organization Patriot Majority USA had more bad news for the incumbent, finding Frelinghuysen with an approval rating of 28 percent in his district and still trailing a Democratic opponent by nine points.
So far, Frelinghuysen has one Republican primary opponent — attorney Martin Hewitt, who calls himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. There are five Democrats vying for the right to represent their party in the general election after two others announced but quit the race.
The money leaders are Rebecca “Mikie” Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and former federal prosecutor from Montclair and Tamara Harris, a family advocate from Verona. Sherrill had about $496,000 in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter of last year, while Harris had $448,000. The other candidates are Mitchell Cobert, a Morristown lawyer; Jack Gebbia, a former Army National Guardsman from Boonton; and Mark Joseph Washburne, a professor of history and political science from Mendham.
Republican Frank LoBiondo recently announced his retirement from the 2nd District, which encompasses Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties and parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean. His retirement gives the Democrats’ an excellent chance at a win. LoBiondo, who cited “increasing political polarization” in announcing his retirement, has consistently been among the state’s most liberal Republican congressmen. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 2nd. Cook calls this race a toss-up, as well.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a Cape May County Democrat who is among the most conservative Democrats in the Legislature, has announced he will run for the seat and has immediately become the favorite. (No Republicans have entered the race as of yet.) Van Drew is not the only Democrat interested, however, as in the primary he faces Sean Thom, a Camden school administrator, and Tanzie Youngblood, an educator from Woolwich, who had raised about $23,000. Possible GOP candidates include former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and former state Assemblyman Vincent Polistina.
Hale likes Van Drew’s chances.
“Phil Murphy’s win as a progressive for governor is kind of an outlier. Historically we like our politicians in the middle,” Hale said. “That means conservative Democrats like (5th District Democrat Josh) Gottheimer or Van Drew can win (in heretofore Republican districts).”
Still considered red-leaning, the 7th is another district Democrats think they can pick up. Republican incumbent Leonard Lance used to worry about primary challenges from more conservative Republicans and, as a result, began to vote more conservatively. This year, he has moved to the left at the urging of constituents who have been hounding his office with calls, filling seats at town halls, and staging weekly protests to advocate positions counter to Trump’s.
So far, his only primary challenger is Lindsay Christine Brown, a progressive Republican who participated in last January’s Women’s March on Washington. There are currently seven Democrats running in the district, which includes Hunterdon County and parts of Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties. Five already have war chests: Peter Jacob, a Union social worker who lost to Lance two years ago; Lisa Mandelblatt, a substitute teacher from Westfield, who is the richest so far with $235,000 cash on hand; Goutam Umesh Jois, a lawyer, football coach, and standup comedian from Summit; Scott Salmon, a Scotch Plains attorney, and Linda Weber, a bank executive from Berkeley Heights. Tom Malinowski, a Polish immigrant who served in the U.S. State Department under President Barack Obama and lives in Rocky Hill, has also filed to run. Environmentalist Dave Pringle from Cranford, of NJ Clean Water Action, just announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination as well.
Democrats set their sights on the 7th almost immediately after the presidential election because this is one of 23 races across the country where voters chose Clinton but also elected a Republican to Congress. Cook rates this district as leaning Republican.
Hale said both Lance and Frelinghuysen could be in trouble for several reasons.
“New Jersey Republicans like their candidates to have manners and to have a sense of social responsibility. That is why Lance and Frelinghuysen have always done well,” Hale said. “The problem for both is Trump has neither manners or social responsibility and that will hurt both Lance and Frelinghuysen quite a bit. Both are running away from Trump as fast as they can. But it might not be fast enough.”
The 3rd District in South Jersey is also in play, rated likely Republican by Cook, but Democrats are hoping to put up a tough fight. It might not be enough despite sophomore U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur’s unwavering support of Trump and the GOP’s priorities, since Trump won there by a six-point margin. Although the 3rd District was once Democratic, MacArthur won with almost 60 percent of the vote in 2016.
While other Republicans have been trying to distance themselves from Trump in an effort to keep their seats, MacArthur’s loyalty may help him, according to Hale.
“MacArthur is not running away from Trump,” Hale said. “He is standing up and taking his beating for supporting Trump. I think some people will respect that.”
Still, Democrat Andy Kim is vying for the chance to unseat MacArthur. Kim, a diplomat and national security advisor in the Obama administration who lives in Marlton, has $216,000 on hand for his campaign.
Murray said the Democrats have a better chance of winning the 2nd District seat than the 3rd, but “the situation remains fluid.”
The only Democrat facing a tough election this year is newcomer Josh Gottheimer, who represents the 5th District that encompasses parts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties. He was an anomaly two years ago, beating an incumbent Republican representative in a district that supported Trump, although by only one point. Cook considers the district leaning Democratic, while Roll Call’s Inside Elections ranks the district a toss-up.
Two Republicans are eager to win the chance to try to unseat Gottheimer. Perennial candidate Steve Lonegan, who most recently ran in the 3rd District, is the best financed so far, with $564,000 in the bank. Lonegan is the former mayor of Bogota who recently was a director of the American Principles Project and Americans for Prosperity’s New Jersey chapter. He has received the backing of Warren County Freeholder Jason Sarnoski, who had considered running but dropped out of the race last month. John McCann, general counsel to the NJ Sheriff’s Association and a member of the Bergen County Republican Committee, is Lonegan’s current primary opponent.
It’s still early, though, and the composition and characteristics of the races can change based on candidates dropping out or entering in a given district — and based on additional votes that incumbents may cast on federal legislation. The filing deadline to compete in the June primary is April 2. And, given the general election is not until November, as Murray noted, “a lot can change in ten months.”