When it comes to policy issues, the two major candidates vying for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd district could not be more different. Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur has aligned himself closely with President Donald Trump whose job-performance rating in the district is better than in the state as a whole, while Democratic opponent Andy Kim has built his campaign around progressive positions on election finance and healthcare reform.
According to the latest Stockton University poll, the race is close with MacArthur edging out Kim, 47 percent to 45 percent. The data show both candidates have the support of their party bases and men favor MacArthur as do Ocean County voters, while women and those from Burlington County side with Kim.
But polls just capture a moment in the race, taking a snapshot that could change in the last weeks before the election. Party affiliation or gender aside, what are the issues that matter most to those living in the 3rd Congressional District?
NJ Spotlight asked 3rd District voters on social media to tell us what issues are important to them. We then asked the campaigns to respond to these voter concerns; Kim agreed to an interview but MacArthur did not reply to repeated contact attempts. Though respondents mentioned everything from environmental concerns, to gun safety, immigration reform and the need for more jobs, the three most frequently mentioned issues were campaign finance, healthcare, and taxation.
Anthony Braaten, 22, from Beachwood said campaign finance reform is one of his biggest concerns: “I feel like we are not being represented at all, he said.
For Braaten, and many like him, it all comes down to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. FEC, commonly known as Citizens United. The majority of justices ruled in that case that outside spending for election ads should not be capped and is a form of free speech. Thus, individuals and groups including unions, nonprofits and corporations all are allowed to spend as much as they want for a politician or party without it giving “rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” according to Justice Anthony Kennedy.
As a result of the Citizens United decision, outside spending in elections skyrocketed and entities like super PACs and so-called dark-money groups were created to funnel endless cash to candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Braaten said the amount of outside money permeating our elections raises questions about where elected officials’ allegiances lie. “The average person isn’t going to have a say in politics so long as these companies keep pouring money into the election,” Braaten said. “Why are [our representatives] going to listen to Joe Schmo who can only donate $5 versus a big corporation that can spend millions?”
Money in politics a major issue
And Braaten is not alone; a bipartisan poll conducted by the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center and Freedom House shows that “money in politics” is one of the primary reasons why people believe their government does not represent them.
Andy Kim, the Democratic candidate in the 3rd district, has made reform of campaign finance the lodestar of his platform. Indeed, he is backed by End Citizens United, a group dedicated to overturning the Supreme Court decision. Kim said in an interview with NJ Spotlight, “I’m not going to take a dime of corporate PAC money. It’s a defining aspect of my campaign.”
Kim has vowed not to accept any corporate political action committee money and says that after serving in Congress he would refuse to work as a lobbyist.
What’s more, he has signed a letter — along with other Democratic Party candidates — promising to overturn Citizens United.
MacArthur’s team did not return several requests for comment but he has spoken out recently regarding Kim’s campaign taking coordinated expenditures from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which accepts contributions from the same types of PACs Kim has disavowed.
MacArthur told the New Jersey Globe: “It is absolutely absurd for Andy Kim to claim that he is not accepting money from corporate PACs, when he is in the midst of spending nearly one million dollars in coordination with the DCCC. I am calling on Andy Kim to admit his ‘no corporate money’ pledge is now officially bogus.”
Another major issue that flooded our voter survey was healthcare. Some respondents called for a single-payer “Medicare for All” approach while others stressed the importance of just having a more affordable system overall.
For Dawn Stern, 62, from Forked River, the biggest concern is having an affordable plan that covers pre-existing conditions. Stern, a nurse, is battling a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer and said that “as a person who has ongoing follow-up care for cancer this is a priority to me.”
“I’m a nurse, I know what it’s like for people who have no healthcare. They fall between the cracks. I’ve had patients come in with treatable conditions but are not treated because they have no access to physicians,” Stern said. “When I was diagnosed, it became a personal issue for me.”
Kim has noted that healthcare is one of the most pressing concerns for voters in his district. “The number one issue I hear about is the high cost of prescription drugs,” the candidate said. “People want to be able to pay for life saving medication.”
One of Kim’s platform proposals is to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices “to be able to provide immediate relief while we work on the bigger issues to find some longer term solutions.” He also said he supports requiring pharmaceutical companies to provide justifications for raising drug prices.
MacArthur was responsible for a key amendment to the congressional Republicans’ attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017. His “MacArthur amendment” to the American Health Care Act (which imploded with a notable thumbs-down from the late Sen. John McCain) would have allowed states to request a waiver to exempt them from certain aspects of the ACA. Those included: opting out of the essential health-benefits requirement and allowing states to charge higher premiums for those with pre-existing conditions.
The Congressional Budget Office reported in May 2017 that, with MacArthur’s amendment, the AHCA would have increased the number of uninsured people to 23 million by 2026. It added that “over time, less healthy individuals (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would be unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”
Voter challenges MacArthur
MacArthur was confronted over his stance on the issue in May of last year at a town-hall meeting in Willingboro by Geoff Ginter of Pine Beach, a certified medical assistant whose wife had cancer and children were born with pre-existing conditions.
MacArthur has since said that he stands by his vote. In a recent debate, webcast by the Asbury Park Press, MacArthur said that his amendment would have prohibited states from denying those with pre-existing conditions access to insurance and would have created a $138 billion fund to help defray costs for those in “high-risk pools.” Several fact checks of the amendment found that amount of money would have been insufficient.
The Kim campaign has called on MacArthur to return $37,500 he took in PAC donations from drug companies that have since been sued for contributing to the opioid crisis.
MacArthur currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Heroin and Opioids Task Force in Congress; it recently passed a package of bills, sponsored by more than 70 lawmakers, focusing on addiction treatment and prevention, insurance coverage and availability. His contribution to the package was the SENIOR Communities Protection Act which gives Medicare Part D the ability to suspend payments to a pharmacy under investigation for fraud or abuse.
Another serious concern for NJ Spotlight readers was taxation.
Barbara Blonsky, 66, from Mount Laurel, says taxation is the issue that ties all her concerns together — including things like healthcare and the need for transparency in government. When looking at the candidates, Blonsky said, “…tax policy gets complicated so people ignore it. I think people forget how that affects us.” She said she wants the candidates to address fairness in tax policy throughout the economy.
“I want someone who says if we’re going to look for benefit in terms of taxes how can we actually help the middle class and lower class instead of giving them some quick money now. If people understood the trade off, they may be willing to say tax breaks are not that important to me.”
Blonsky added, “I want a candidate willing to discuss issues with me… I want a candidate who is willing to hold meetings and say ‘yes, eventual benefits for the elderly might be a problem and here are the five different solutions we’re looking at.’ Our representative should educate people so they just don’t get angry and feel like they’re getting screwed.”
They differ on SALT cap
For Kim, the new federal cap on the state and local tax deduction (SALT) has been “a huge issue.” His campaign website said he “will work from Day One to get a tax reform that will focus on permanent cuts for the middle class.”
“NJ pays more than its fair share to the federal level and this bill which is a new law which focused in on providing tax relief … It’s not what New Jersey families need.”
MacArthur was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to vote for the GOP tax-reform plan, which contained the SALT cap. In the early days of tax-reform negotiations, MacArthur opposed the plan and instead advocated for a $10,000 deduction for property taxes which he said would cover “nearly every taxpayer” in his district.
According to a Washington Post fact check, MacArthur’s calculations isolated the property-tax portion and didn’t properly measure how it interacted with other parts of the GOP plan. For that reason, they wrote, “MacArthur appears to have worked diligently to tilt the bill so that it would benefit his constituents, but he oversells his achievement.” They gave his claims “two Pinocchios.”
MacArthur and Kim will take part in a debate on NJTV, Wednesday, October 31 at 8 p.m. NJ Spotlight is partnering with NJTV and will be livestreaming the debate, along with online commentary, here on our home page.