It’s been a wild couple of days for voters and supporters in South Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District.
After ending the election on Tuesday without a clear winner in this year’s contentious midterm contest — and after anxiously awaiting the recording of thousands of mail-in ballots over the course of yesterday — Democrats finally declared victory last night, crowning candidate Andy Kim the victor and heir-apparent of the seat currently held by Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur. Kim announced his win at a special event at his campaign headquarters in Mt. Laurel, where he told supporters he had “built a substantial lead” and is “proud to announce that we have won this hard-fought election.”
“From the very beginning, this was all about the people,” Kim told a roomful of ecstatic supporters. “It was all about what we can do for our families, what we can do for our communities, making sure that we have a voice in Washington that looks after all of us. That’s what this has been about.”
The speech, however, was largely pre-emptive, considering that a significant number of provisional and mail-in ballots have yet to be counted in the district — and that MacArthur has yet to concede. The two-term incumbent issued a statement shortly after Kim’s announcement last night, acknowledging the closeness of the contest but refusing to admit defeat.
“This has been a hard fought campaign and like Andy Kim, I’m ready to see it come to an end,” MacArthur said. “I have always said that I will be guided by the voters of the district and there are nearly 7,000 more of them who haven’t been heard from yet. We must ensure that their votes — and all votes — are counted in a transparent way that protects the integrity of this election.”
Mail-in ballots straggle in
Those votes were the focus of a suspenseful election night, which concluded with MacArthur up by nearly 2,300 votes over Kim. But the tables turned around 3:30 p.m. yesterday, when Burlington County tallied its more than 25,000 mail-in ballots — a “mind-boggling” number, according to the county’s election board chairman, Joe Dugan — that had been left outstanding.
The late-breaking figures bring Kim’s vote total in the district to 148,580, with over 100,000 coming from Burlington and 46,677 coming from Ocean County. MacArthur’s totals rose to 145,988, with 69,090 in Burlington and 76,868 in Ocean.
County officials and political experts yesterday said the margin may be enough to put Kim over the top, though they noted that a number of votes have yet to be counted. Those include hundreds of outstanding mail-in ballots, in-person votes cast in six Burlington County precincts that suffered machine outages Tuesday night, as well as between 2,000 and 3,000 provisional ballots in both counties.
The process of counting all those votes is likely to push any official outcome in the race through the weekend. County officials said the mail-in ballots, which voters were able to send in as late as Tuesday as long as they were postmarked by that time and received by the clerk no later than Thursday, were still rolling in on Wednesday and will continue to today. The provisional ballots, meanwhile, likely won’t be tallied until next week, since they must first be verified by the counties’ superintendents of elections.
Still, experts note that the spread of outstanding votes should ultimately favor Kim, whose potential gains in liberal Burlington County are likely to offset MacArthur’s in conservative Ocean County. The 3rd district encompasses parts of both, extending from the Jersey Shore in the east to and exurbs of Philadelphia and Trenton to the west.
Why it’s tilting to Kim
“Kim’s got a lead of about 2,500 right now,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “From what I’ve heard, there’s anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 votes out there in Ocean County, and at least that much in Burlington County. Which means, whatever happens, it’s going to end up helping Kim.”
The lead was also apparently big enough to convince Kim to bring the race to end yesterday. Surrounded by friends and family, he said he had run his campaign with “integrity and honor,” and that it is an “honor and a privilege” to be the district’s next congressional representative.
“This is such a critical time for our country,” Kim said. “And what we need right now is a new generation of leaders that step up, serving the American people, focusing on what’s best for us, our families and country. Getting past this partisan gamesmanship and hyper partisanship. Healing these division that our out there right now. That is what I promise you.”
Whatever the outcome, though, observers agree that the race has been one of the most significant of the midterm season, an encapsulation of the dynamics that shaped many contests in the state this year. Democrats, at least in New Jersey, came away from Tuesday night triumphant, picking up three more House seats across the state. Much of the success was due to overwhelming turnout among voters fed up with Republican — and President Donald Trump’s — leadership in Washington.
The same was true for the 3rd district, where the race quickly became a referendum on Trump’s politics. A former insurance executive and Randolph mayor elected to the district in 2014, MacArthur has sided with the president on several big-ticket policy issues. He led Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and was the only GOP representative in the state to vote for the party’s tax overhaul bill. Kim, the child of South Korean immigrants and a former director of Iraq for the National Security Council during the Obama administration, leveraged his background and Washington connections to garner crucial support from outside political organizations.
Turnout way up
Voters came out in droves for both candidates. but especially for the Democrat. In Ocean County, preliminary figures show that voter participation increased from 38 percent in the last midterm elections in 2014, to 48 percent this year. In Burlington County, turnout jumped from 38 percent to 51 percent.
In attracting those numbers, Kim had to overcome a demographic disadvantage; experts point out that the 3rd district was made more Republican in 2011, when liberal Cherry Hill was cut out and conservative Brick Township brought in.
“The really surprising thing is that these races were competitive at all,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “These Republican districts in New Jersey were gerrymandered to protect Republican incumbents. This was supposed to be a six-six map, meaning six Democrats and six Republicans. That just shows you just how unique 2018 is.”
If Kim is indeed elected, Democrats will hold a total of 11 out of 12 of the state’s congressional seats. It’s the largest majority they’ve had in over a hundred years, and leaves U.S. Rep. Chris Smith — MacArthur’s Republican colleague in the neighboring 4th district — the last GOP member standing. The newcomer would also join a host of other new Democratic candidates elected across the country in this year’s midterms.
The numbers were there all along
“Andy Kim is fighting for everyone to have the opportunity to succeed — expanding access to health care, education, and building an economy that works for the middle class,” said House Majority PAC executive director Charlie Kelly, following Kim’s announcement. “House Majority PAC was thrilled to have played a major role in ensuring that Andy Kim goes to Washington and fights for New Jersey families.”
Murray, for his part, said the writing was on the wall all along. The pundit’s Monmouth University Poll in August put the two candidates neck and neck under normal conditions, with 41 percent of potential voters supporting MacArthur and 40 percent supporting Kim. But under conditions that included a Democratic surge in turnout, Kim jumped into the lead, with 46 to MacArthur’s 43 percent.
“Look, if you’re asking for somebody to give you a surprise story, I ain’t the one to tell you that,” Murray said. “Because this is exactly what the dynamic, the atmosphere, and the numbers have said all along would happen in this district.”
“It’s good to see voters trying to come as close to the Monmouth Poll as possible,” he added.
— Carly Sitrin contributed to this story.