Under Consideration: New Jersey’s Congressional Contenders

Colleen O'Dea | January 23, 2020 | Politics
With 48 hopefuls already declared — and more expected — here are the candidates and the districts that really need to be watched closely
Credit: House website/Tomkean.com
The 7th District race between Democratic incumbent Tom Malinowski, left, and GOP challenger Tom Kean is expected to be one of the hardest fought.

Tuesday’s announcement by former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli that he is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Gov. Phil Murphy kicked off the 2021 governor’s race. But first, voters and the parties need to get through this year’s federal elections.

With less than 10 months to go until Election Day, the field of New Jersey congressional candidates has been growing and evolving, most recently with the decision by Republican Rosemary Becchi to switch races and run in the 11th District, instead of the 7th, where she had already been hammering away at fellow Republican Sen. Tom Kean, who is now going to likely be freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski’s opponent in November.

The Federal Election Commission lists some four dozen candidates so far for the state’s 12 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate seat held by Democrat Cory Booker, but that list does not include some who just jumped into one of the races or have not yet filed paperwork. The filing deadline is March 30.

The last election in 2018 brought the Democrats almost a full sweep of New Jersey’s House seats, but the decision by Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd District to switch to the Republican Party after casting one of only two Democratic votes against impeaching President Donald Trump has narrowed that number to 10. Only the sprawling 2nd in South Jersey and the 4th along the Shore are currently red.

Dems on the defensive

Democrats have to defend three districts that were formerly Republican — two of them long red — and are looking to regain control of the 2nd by unseating Van Drew. Right now, one of those is ranked likely Democratic by The Cook Political Report, a second leaning Democratic and the third — Rep Andy Kim’s 3rd District seat in South Jersey — a tossup. The party is also going to have to deal with at least one intraparty squabble in the 5th District in the northwest, which Rep. Josh Gottheimer was able to flip to blue in 2016 even though the district chose Trump over Hillary Clinton.

In 3rd District, Rep. Andy Kim discusses pocketbook issues at a town hall: Report by Michael Aron of NJTV News 

The party held a fundraiser in Bridgewater Tuesday night headlined by Murphy to help enrich the coffers of the state’s four most vulnerable Democrats, all part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline Program, meant to help protect the party’s gains in the 2018 “blue wave.” They are Gottheimer, Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill in the 11th and Andy Kim.

“We need to do everything we can to send them back to Washington to keep fighting for New Jersey families,” Murphy said in a statement.

Republicans rally

Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting in the 2nd, where Bob Patterson has termed the incumbent “Switcheroo Van Drew” and David Richter, former CEO of a construction management company, ended the year with $515,000 in his campaign coffers.

But they will avoid a nasty battle in the 7th in central Jersey and sidestep a potential thrashing in the 11th based in Morris County with Becchi’s decision to run against freshman Sherrill in a district in which neither currently lives, leaving Kean with essentially smooth sailing toward the nomination.

Before switching to the 11th District, Republican Rosemary Becchi sent out mailers critical of fellow Republican Tom Kean in the 7th District.

Becchi’s switch came at the urging of GOP leaders, who wanted the establishment Kean to be the party’s candidate in the 7th this fall, according to InsiderNJ. Although the tax policy attorney had already spent more than $100,000 through last September on her bid to best Kean, including four mailers to GOP voters in the 7th introducing herself and portraying the highest-ranking Republican in the state Senate as a “career politician” who is “not fighting for the Republican party,” Becchi announced her switch to the 11th District race Tuesday.

“Mikie Sherrill has failed our families by standing with Nancy Pelosi’s partisan impeachment effort instead of fixing the problems that have made New Jersey simply unaffordable for average families, seniors and our young people — the future of our economy,” she said in a statement. “Mikie Sherill broke her promise to the people of New Jersey to be a moderate voice for them, and instead has voted with Nancy Pelosi 98% of the time, including votes to weaken our immigration laws and against our military and veterans.”

Becchi lives in Short Hills, which is in the 7th District, but the law does not require congressional candidates to live within the districts they represent. And residency may not be a factor in this race, because Sherrill, of Montclair, does not live in the 11th either. While she moved into the 11th two years ago, Sherrill owns a house just across the border in the 10th District and moved back after being unable to sell her home. Sherrill’s home is reportedly still for sale and she has said she wants to move back into the 11th. Becchi has so far been silent on the residency issue.

“We look forward to contrasting Mikie’s lifetime of service in the Navy, as a federal prosecutor, and as a member of Congress fighting for New Jersey taxpayers to Rosemary’s record as a corporate lobbyist,” Sherrill’s campaign responded in a statement. “Rosemary has spent her career helping corporate special interests push more of the tax burden onto New Jersey taxpayers. New Jersey deserves a congresswoman who fights for our country and our families — not a corporate lobbyist who works on behalf of special-interest groups.”

The poli-sci perspective

Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said the Becchi switch was “a smart move by Republicans” but it is not likely to change the outcome of the races.”

“In the 7th, Kean versus Malinowski is going to be an incredibly tough race that I think is too close to call,” he said. “In the 11th, Becchi might give Sherrill some competition but not enough to take her out. So much of what happens in both districts depends on who Democrats nominate for president.  A centrist helps both Malinowski and Sherrill, a progressive hurts them both.”

With New Jersey’s last-in-the-nation primaries — along with Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and the District of Columbia — the state’s voters normally don’t have much of a say in the nominee for either party, though this year’s large field of Democrats with divided support could be different.

There will be hotly contested primary battles in at least a few districts.

Both parties are fielding multiple candidates in the 2nd.

In addition to Van Drew, Patterson and Richter, businessman Brian Fitzherbert of Egg Harbor is also running for the GOP nomination.

On the Democratic side, the crowded field already includes: Montclair State University Professor Brigid Callahan Harrison; Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett; Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy; John Francis, a commissioner in West Cape May; Robert Turkavage, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2018; and Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency. Will Cunningham, who has worked for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and lost to Van Drew in the Democratic primary in 2018, plans to announce his candidacy Saturday. Harrison would seem to have an edge, having received the backing of many establishment Democrats, including state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and the chairs of six of the eight counties included in the district. So far, the FEC shows no campaign financial activity for any of the Democrats.

While Gottheimer, who chairs the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, continues to be among the best fundraisers in New Jersey and his war chest — he had $6.4 million in the bank as of last September 30 — and support from establishment Democrats could be tough to overcome. He does have a primary challenger: Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist and Glen Rock councilwoman, had less than $100,000 on hand at the same time last year, but she did win the endorsement of the progressive grassroots Indivisible NJ 5th District group last week. Progressives have been unhappy with Gottheimer’s more conservative stances on a number of issues, including funding for immigration enforcement.