The Battling Already Has Begun for Next Year’s Congressional Elections

Colleen O'Dea | October 11, 2019 | Politics
As they try to regain the four seats they lost in the 2018 midterms, Republicans claim Democrats are vulnerable. Election watchers don’t necessarily agree
Republicans believe they have a chance to unseat (clockwise from top left) Democrats Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill, Jeff Van Drew and Andy Kim

While the focus in New Jersey politics currently is on next month’s Assembly and local elections, the battle lines already are being drawn for next year’s congressional contests.

Republicans are on the offense and looking to recapture the four seats the party lost in last year’s midterm elections, as well as the formerly longtime red 5th district in the northwest corner of the state which the party lost in 2016. Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed to defend the seats they flipped in the election and indeed turn the state all blue, with two candidates so far having filed to try to unseat the state’s last remaining Republican in the House.

With 2020 a presidential election year and sentiments both for and against the current administration remaining high, next year’s races are bound to turn into a referendum on President Trump, at least in part. Democratic incumbents will tout their records and continue to argue the president’s actions on health insurance, taxes and other issues have hurt New Jersey and the country. Republicans will argue that the Democrats are the ones who are out of touch with Americans’ beliefs.

“Every one of these Democrats is vulnerable due to their obsession with baselessly removing President Trump from office and the socialist agenda they’ve embraced,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the Republican National Campaign Committee, referring to the four Democrats who flipped seats last year — in districts 2, 3, 7 and 11 — and sophomore Rep. Josh Gottheimer in the 5th District.

“Winning seats in New Jersey is a priority,” he continued. “In 2016 with President Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans held four out of five of these seats and we look forward to winning them back. We will have talented candidates in every one of these seats.”

Giving an edge to Democrats

But the major political ratings are giving Democrats a small or significant edge in all those races, except in the 3rd District that covers parts of Burlington and Ocean counties. There, freshman Rep. Andy Kim is considered in the greatest peril, with his seat considered a tossup by the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Inside Elections has Kim’s seat tilting Democratic.

Kim ousted Republican Tom MacArthur by the narrowest margin in New Jersey in 2018 — 1.2%, or fewer than 4,000 votes, following a count of mail-in and provisional ballots that took more than a week. Voter registration is slightly in his favor — about 31% Democrats to 29% Republicans. Yet the 3rd District voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 6.2%, the most of any of the districts that Democrats won last year. With the higher turnout of a presidential election and Trump on the ballot likely to attract more Republican voters next year, Kim could be vulnerable.

The RNCC has targeted Kim and pledged to spend resources there to try to win back the seat. While there is no official GOP candidate yet, former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs, who was swept out of office after one term in last year’s New Jersey blue wave, announced last month the formation of an exploratory committee for a congressional run.

Kim’s campaign has been using the specter of a challenger to try to raise money for his re-election bid, including an email sent to supporters last month that said, “We’re expecting our first opponent to officially announce sometime in the coming weeks. We’re expecting her official announcement to activate National Republican dark money groups to start dropping cash into this race on her behalf.” His most recent campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission shows Kim had raised almost $1.2 million through June 30.

Next year’s campaigns could be expensive. Last year in New Jersey, candidates and committees spent more than $151 million on the 2018 congressional races, which included Sen. Bob Menendez’s re-election to the U.S. Senate. Some $23 million of that alone was spent in the 3rd District, with more than half of the total coming from outside interest groups.

The odds for Van Drew

After Kim, the raters indicate the chances of re-election for Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, to be questionable. Inside Elections puts that race in the same category as Kim’s, tilting Democratic. The Cook Political Report and Crystal Ball judged it leaning Democratic.

A former state senator who consistently won as a conservative Democrat in a majority-red district, Van Drew won his seat in the southernmost congressional district — which includes his former legislative district — by a comfortable margin of nearly 8 points. Still, the race was closer than had been expected, given that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 2nd and Van Drew’s opponent Seth Grossman had lost the backing of the RNCC for disparaging and controversial comments about diversity. Despite its blue registration advantage, the 2nd had been represented for 24 years by Frank LoBiondo, who had been the most liberal-leaning of the state’s Republicans in the House.

This time around, two Republicans so far have filed paperwork to run: David Richter, the former CEO of a global construction company, and Brian Fitzherbert, program manager for a defense contractor. A third candidate, Bob Patterson, has a website up but the FEC’s website does not show him as having filed the required statement of candidacy. None of the three has held political office and all are running as conservatives. Of the trio, only Richter has filed any financial reports, indicating he had raised $412,000 through September 30, including $300,000 of his own money.

Van Drew reported having raised $756,000 through June 30.

Rep. Tom Malinowski unseated Republican Leonard Lance last year in the 7th District that encompasses all or parts of six counties and stretches from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River to Kenilworth in Union County. He won by 5 percentage points in New Jersey’s only GOP congressional district to choose Clinton over Trump in 2016. Republicans have a slight lead in voter registration there and had long held the district.

All three raters see the 7th as continuing to lean Democratic next year, despite Malinowski facing a well-known likely challenger in state Republican Sen. Tom Kean Jr. But first Kean must beat a couple of primary challengers in Tom Phillips, a human resources executive, and Rosemary Becchi, a tax policy lawyer and consultant. Kean had a commanding fundraising lead over Phillips through June 30, $507,000 versus $8,200. Becchi has not yet filed any financial reports with the FEC.

Malinowski had more than $1.1 million as of June 30.

Solidly for Sherrill?

Democrat Mikie Sherrill flipped the open 11th District, long a Republican stronghold centered in Morris County, with a much larger than expected margin of nearly 15 points over state Assemblyman Jay Webber. The raters agree that district, despite a slight GOP voter registration advantage, is likely to remain blue next year. This is the only district where McAdams said the RNCC does not yet have a strong candidate. Republican Reinier Prijten had declared his candidacy last April, although he was not even living in New Jersey at the time, and has since withdrawn from the race.

While the RNCC is also targeting the 5th District, which Democrat Josh Gottheimer wrestled from Republican hands in 2016, it’s being judged either likely or solidly Democratic in 2020. Gottheimer, the top House fundraiser among the New Jersey delegation in the last election cycle whom many progressives say is too conservative, is facing a primary challenge from Arati Kreibich, a Glen Rock councilwoman who launched her candidacy via YouTube three months ago.

There’s also a primary battle among Republicans to face Gottheimer. John McCann, who suffered a lopsided loss to the incumbent last year, is running again and facing Frank Pallotta, a former investment banker; running too are James Baldini, an educator, and Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali.

Five Democrats so far have declared their candidacies to try to oust Republican Chris Smith, the fourth most senior member of the House whose 4th District is not considered in play. They are Christine Conforti of Ocean Grove, David Applefield of Red Bank, Tiffany Kaszuba of Howell, Hassan Shehadeh of Freehold and Stephanie Schmid, a former intern in Smith’s office from Little Silver.

A number of other candidates, some of them Democrats, have filed to challenge what are considered safely Democratic seats in the rest of the state.