This year’s New Jersey congressional campaigns, which include a nasty battle for a U.S. Senate seat and potentially four races that could help the Democrats take control of the House, have drawn far more money than usual, with Democrats outspending Republicans in every House district for the first time in recent memory.
Even in the 4th District, the only one considered safely to remain in Republican control following the November 6 election, Democratic challenger Josh Welle had raised and spent about $300,000 more than longtime incumbent Rep. Chris Smith through September 30, the latest finance data from the Federal Election Commission shows.
“I think the largest thing driving the Democrats’ fundraising is the fact that we have these two open seats,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, referring to the retirements of Republicans Frank LoBiondo in South Jersey’s 2nd District and Rodney P. Frelinghuysen in north Jersey’s 11th. “It means these districts are more competitive and they attract higher levels of fundraising than when there is an unknown challenger.”
In all, New Jersey candidates for the Senate and 12 House seats had raised $84.2 million and spent $60.8 million through September 30. The Democratic candidates for the state’s dozen House seats had raised close to four times more than the Republicans, $32.5 million versus $8.9 million. Democrats had spent $19.3 million, three times more than the $6.4 million spent by Republicans.
Although the Congressional Leadership Fund, aligned with current GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent the most from an outside group in New Jersey — more than $4.5 million — Democrats got a bigger monetary boost from more so-called unaffiliated groups. Democrats benefitted from $10.5 million spent by 24 groups, while 10 groups boosted Republicans’ efforts with $7.5 million in spending, according to an analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website.
‘…lots of national money’
“New Jersey Democrats are awash with cash because the House can’t flip unless New Jersey does,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. “In theory, New Jersey could account for almost 20 percent of the Democratic pickups needed for the House to flip. That is huge, so lots of national money is coming to New Jersey.”
Hale added that New Jersey’s Democratic House challengers are “very centrist middle of the road Democrats” able to get funds from “rich centrist Democrats” who do not want to see the party move to the left.
The only race where the Democrat has been outspent has been for the Senate, where Republican Bob Hugin had loaned his campaign $24 million of his own money, more than 90 percent of the total $26.2 million in his coffers through September 30. The former pharmaceuticals executive had spent $22.7 million, more than three times the $7 million two-term incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez expended. Outside spending has favored Menendez slightly, but he is still close to $15 million behind Hugin.
Despite that, the latest polls give Menendez a comfortable lead over Hugin. The Monmouth University Poll released Thursday gives the incumbent at least a nine-point lead over Hugin among likely voters, while a Quinnipiac University Poll out on Wednesday put Menendez’s lead at seven points.
Harrison said incumbency is a high bar for a challenger to overcome, but it can be done by spending between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half times more than an incumbent.
The Trump factor
However, this is blue New Jersey, which has not elected a Republican to the Senate in more than four decades and where President Donald Trump’s most recent disapproval rating, according to the Monmouth poll, is 55 percent, with 49 percent “strongly” disapproving and just 29 percent “strongly” approving.
“If these poll results hold, the first person Bob Menendez should thank in his election night victory speech is Donald Trump,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “I bet the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC wishes it could take back the $3 million being spent in New Jersey right now.”
The Senate Majority PAC, allied with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, may not have needed to spend the $3 million it recently committed in the state to ads attacking Hugin. The PAC decided to put money into the race after some polls had put the race relatively close.
Trump is scheduled to come to New Jersey to raise money for Republican Jay Webber in the 11th District, who has been outspent four-to-one by Democrat Mikie Sherrill in seeking an open seat in what has traditionally been a red district. The former Navy helicopter pilot and former federal prosecutor has raised the most money of any New Jersey House candidate this year — more than $7 million; she is ranked 14th in the nation among all House seekers for the amount of money she has raised. Webber had raised just $1.2 million through September 30. Sherrill also had a huge cash advantage with which to continue airing campaign ads over Webber in the last weeks of the campaign — $2.7 million to just $140,000.
Harrison said Trump’s endorsement of and fundraising for Webber helps Sherrill.
Sherrill goes on the offensive
“It works to Mikie’s advantage,” she said. “Trump won by 1 percent in the district and those are people who probably held their nose and voted Republican. In that district, in particular, Trump’s support is going to antagonize women who may have been on the fence before.”
In a statement issued yesterday, Sherrill portrayed Webber as being in lockstep with Trump and Republican leaders in Washington who have taken a number of actions to hurt the state.
“This is what partisanship looks like in its purest form, and Assemblyman Webber is once again telegraphing to the people of this community that he will always put Washington interests over serving the people of New Jersey,” she said. “In one breath, he says he will stand up for our state, yet in the next, he embraces policies and politicians that hurt New Jersey time and again. He holds rallies with Speaker Paul Ryan, the architect of the SALT deduction cap, and fundraises with Senator Tom Cotton who voted against Superstorm Sandy aid, flood insurance, and is out of touch with New Jersey values.”
This kind of talk against Republican incumbents has also dominated the races in the 3rd District in South Jersey and 7th in central Jersey, both of which have been rated toss-ups by the Cook Political Report and University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. In both of these races, the Democrats — Andy Kim in the 3rd and Tom Malinowski in the 7th — raised and spent more than the Republicans Tom MacArthur and Leonard Lance, respectively, through September 30.
“What we see there is the Trump effect,” Harrison said. “These are districts that are not traditionally seen as competitive but might be competitive this year. It’s a symptom not of a national blue wave, but of New Jersey being a blue state where the president has a low approval rating.”
Outspending GOP incumbents
While the challengers have outspent GOP incumbents in the 3rd, 7th and 4th districts, it’s not by the kinds of wide margins Harrison said are usually needed to unseat an incumbent. In the 7th, in particular, outside spending has almost evened the spending score. Still, the Trump effect could make the difference.
Even more than how much money a candidate has, is how he spends it, said Cliff Zukin, a senior advisor to the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
“Unlike the statewide races, where the money goes to TV ads, the congressional races’ money is spent more locally,” he said. “And the candidates are more likely to focus on Get Out the Vote efforts than would the candidates for Senate be … I think money at the end is a large factor in races that are at the margin, as at least four of those in New Jersey are.”
Who wins will depend on who gets more supporters to vote, Zukin continued, noting that turnout recently has ranged from 68 percent in the 2016 presidential election to 31 percent in the 2014 midterm.
“The bitterly polarized times we are now in mean that there is little to be gained in conversion, or persuasion,” he said. “Partisan preferences are now more set than ever in the last 50 years at least … To me, this means that there is a far better chance that campaigns aimed at GOTV will have an impact, and that’s what the last local money is for.”