Candidates Continue to Turn Up the Heat in NJ’s Hottest Campaigns

Colleen O'Dea | September 4, 2018 | Politics
An unexpectedly narrow margin in the state’s Senate race, and plenty of outside money buying TV spots and looking to flip red districts, are keeping some New Jersey’s contests on the boil

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (left) and Republican senatorial hopeful Bob Hugin
Labor Day is traditionally the start of the fall election season — but not this year. The state’s hottest campaigns are already in full swing, having barely stopped for breath after the primary. Some of the contests — particularly the Senate seat at the top of the ticket — have already gotten quite nasty.

The tone and intensity of the campaigns speak to the urgency of this year’s midterm elections, with Democrats eager to take back the U.S. House of Representatives by flipping at least 24 seats. Four of New Jersey’s five seats currently held by Republicans are part of that strategy. A GOP political action committee, meanwhile, has spent more than $1 million so far in the state and opened local field offices in two of those contested districts in an effort to keep them red.

At the same time, Democrats, trailing by just one seat in the U.S. Senate, had not expected to have to put much work into defending Sen. Bob Menendez in a state that has not elected a Republican to the upper house in more than four decades. But the race is tight due to Menendez’s recent trial on corruption charges, which were later dismissed.

Mud for mud

Menendez finally began running his own television spots late last month, slinging mud back at Republican Bob Hugin, who has spent millions of his own money in the past few months running unanswered ads focusing on Menendez’s indictment. The Democrat was charged with accepting gifts and travel from a campaign donor on whose behalf he intervened with a federal agency. Menendez said the gifts were from a friend. A trial led to a hung jury; the Justice Department has since dropped the charges, although Hugin’s ads do not mention this.

That barrage of negative ads was at least partially responsible for a steep drop in support for the 25-year federal lawmaker in the latest poll: A Quinnipiac University survey gave Menendez a 6-point lead among voters in a poll that has a margin of error of 4.6 points. Quinnipiac’s previous poll on the race, in March, gave Menendez a 17-point lead.

Still, pundits say the race is Menendez’s to lose, given the state’s strong blue base — New Jersey has close to 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans — and its solid anti-Trump sentiment. Menendez’s ads claim Hugin engaged in price gouging as the former head of the pharmaceuticals company Celgene, and noting that he gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump could resonate with voters and boost the Democrat’s support.

Both candidates are getting help from so-called independent organizations that are running ads criticizing one Bob or the other. So far, Menendez is benefitting more. Two progressive political action committees — Patients for Affordable Drugs Action and Leadership Alliance New Jersey — have spent almost $3.3 million on anti-Hugin ads. Meanwhile, Integrity NJ, which has ties to former Gov. Chris Christie, has spent close to $1 million on anti-Menendez ads. The total independent spending in New Jersey to date ranks 12th in the nation for Senate races according to the Open Secrets website.

Outside spending in legislative districts

Outside groups have also been generous in three of the state’s red districts that are considered a tossup or leaning Democratic this year, spending close to $3 million so far. The Congressional Leadership Fund, linked to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent the most, with the Democrats’ House Majority PAC not far behind. CLF, which has expended about $1.4 million, has even opened field offices in the 3rd District in South Jersey and the 7th in central Jersey in an effort to stave off a blue wave.

The greatest outside spending so far in a New Jersey House race has occurred in Central Jersey’s 7th District. Republican Rep. Leonard Lance has held the seat for a decade, but the 7th voted for Hillary Clinton two years ago and the Democrats have targeted the seat.

Democrat Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state under President Obama, had raised more money than Lance as of the last reporting period June 30 and is out with two ads, the first introducing himself and the second calling Lance a “typical politician” who voted 60 times to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. The House Majority PAC has spent $230,000 on his behalf. Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $859,000 so far on ads, half of that attacking Malinowski as a “liberal, elite carpetbagger” and the other half praising Lance.

The incumbent, a conservative who has moderated some of his positions since Trump’s election, also recently got a boost from a pro gun-control PAC headed by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was seriously wounded in a gun attack seven years ago. Lance, who calls himself a Second Amendment supporter, has tended to earn near-perfect ratings from the National Rifle Association. He picked up Giffords’ endorsement for recently sponsoring several gun-control bills and for opposing a bill that would require states like New Jersey with strict gun-control laws to honor concealed-carry gun permits issued by other states. Malinowski backers criticized the endorsement.

Dark-money donors

Lance has also been getting support from a number of so-called dark-money groups, nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. The conservative American Action Network and two healthcare-related groups, the Alliance for Patient Access and the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, have taken out ads and sent mailers to households within the district championing Lance’s positions related to healthcare.

The race in South Jersey’s 3rd District, represented by Republican Tom MacArthur, has tightened, as the major House-race raters have boosted Democrat Andy Kim’s chances. The district has more registered Democrats than Republicans but typically votes red and gave Trump a six–point win over Clinton two years ago. A Monmouth University Poll last month called the race a statistical tie, and it’s now judged a tossup.

The Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $542,000 in ads against Kim, who worked on counterterrorism issues under Obama and who, like Malinowski, has received the former president’s endorsement. The House Majority PAC spent $266,000 against MacArthur, who has been Trump’s most reliable supporter in New Jersey, voting for the president’s policies more than 94 percent of the time, according to the FiveThirtyEight blog.

Retiring-Republican districts

New Jersey’s two districts with retiring Republican congressmen have seen less outside spending but no less action.

The major candidates in the 11th in North Jersey, where longtime Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen is retiring, have been holding public events and announcing endorsements. Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who had nearly $3 million on hand as of June 30, compared to Republican Jay Webber’s $172,000, was the first on television early last month with an ad introducing herself. Webber, a state assemblyman, aired his first ad meant to acquaint voters with him last week.

A red district for more than 30 years, the 11th has a large population of moderate voters and backed Trump over Clinton by just 1 percentage point. Raters currently give Sherrill a slim advantage. The Congressional Leadership Fund has made no commitment here to date, while the House Majority PAC and Stronger Foundations, a labor-related organization, have spent a combined $349,000 against Webber.

South Jersey’s sprawling 2nd District, where GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo is retiring, is judged likely Democratic despite a 22-year record of voting Republican. LoBiondo has been New Jersey’s most liberal Republican in Congress; Democrat Jeff Van Drew, a state Assemblyman from Cape May County, is among the most conservative Democrats in the state Legislature. Republican nominee Seth Grossman, meanwhile, lost the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee over the summer after a video surfaced of him saying diversity is “a bunch of crap and un-American.”

There are contested races in all of New Jersey’s other districts, but none of those is expected to swing.