Was it the record-setting blue wave or the sporadic red lethargy that swept Democratic Congressman Andy Kim to a razor-thin victory in the historically Republican 3rd District two years ago?
By all appearances, expect another nail-biter this November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report and Real Clear Politics are each calling it a toss-up. This week, Cook revised its outlook to leaning Democratic.
The makeup of this swing South Jersey district is a tale of two distinctly different counties — Ocean, the state’s most Republican, and Burlington, which in recent years has been overtaken by Democrats and is becoming bluer by the minute.
In 2018, newcomer Kim dominated Burlington County with 59% of the vote, performing well in even some of the most Republican towns in his race against GOP star Tom MacArthur. At the same time, he was able to make inroads in Ocean with 38% — a county President Trump won by 33 points two years earlier.
New Jersey flipped four congressional seats in 2018, helping Democrats to retake control of the House of Representatives in a so-called blue wave across the country, which saw them outpace Republicans by a record 10 million votes. In New Jersey, Democrats almost doubled their performance from the 2014 midterm election, from 204,000 votes to 402,000. Republicans saw much less enthusiasm with a 43% increase from about 156,000 to 223,000.
A look at this year’s primary results shows Kim, running unopposed, received 20,000 more votes than the total of those cast in the hotly contested GOP primary, from which David Richter emerged victorious.
The Trump factor
But with Trump at the top of the ticket in November, it will surely attract more Republican voters in this district he won by six points in 2016 and former President Barack Obama won by five in 2012.
Richter, who is running as an all-in-for-Trump candidate, likes his chances.
“I think Trump will win (the district) by more than 10 points this time,” he told NJ Spotlight News. And because Trump voters aren’t likely to split their tickets, “the presidential race is going to determine the congressional race.”
But Richter is by no means dancing in the end zone, and for at least a few good reasons.
The average of three internal polls shows the race a dead heat. Kim has also amassed a huge campaign fund, and Richter concedes, will “outspend me by a wide margin.” And finally, Democrats in the district have attracted more new voters over the past two year, increasing their advantage over the GOP to 16,000 votes.
That said, any number of events could move the presidential race either way: how Trump’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court plays out, how soon an effective COVID-19 vaccine can be ready, and whatever “October surprise” may await.
Another wild card is who will run a better, nontraditional campaign during a pandemic. Boot-leather, on-the-ground strategies, which normally favor Democrats, are not in play this year. Campaigns have become almost totally virtual.
As is the case in close races, “It will come down to who gets out more voters,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, who gives Kim a slight edge because of the growing number of Democratic voters in Burlington County, combined with his overwhelming superiority in fundraising.
Far apart in policy — and style
The once-safe GOP district has become much more competitive since longtime Republican Congressman Jim Saxton retired in 2009. Since then, the seat has been held by Democrat John Adler, Republican Jon Runyan, Republican Tom MacArthur and now Democrat Kim.
Beyond the metrics of political calculation, there are the candidates themselves, who couldn’t be farther apart in policy and style.
Kim, a former State Department adviser who worked under Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan and later at the National Security Council under Obama, is generally believed to be a hard-working, moderate legislator — or as he says, no “fire-breathing partisan.” He is absent both scandal and any major accomplishments in the House. While not a regular on cable news, Kim has authored four bills that became law, mostly around veterans issues.
Asked what his first bill would look like if he is reelected, Kim said, would be to shore up Obamacare and address the crippling economic hardship created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Richter, the wealthy former CEO of Hill International construction company, has cast his fate solely to the winds of Trump. Unlike Kim, he admittedly breathes fire and is emphasizing law and order, border security and the perils that left-wing radicals pose for this country. Kim betrayed his constituents, Richter says, when he broke his promise to vote against Rep. Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker. He claims the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
He does have one departure from the Trump playbook, however, saying he wants to fix, not repeal, Obamacare — an issue that tops Democratic campaign strategy this year.
The carpetbagger issue
Carl Golden, a longtime Republican insider who lives in the district, also gives Kim the advantage. One reason, says Golden, is that “there still exists a fair amount of resentment over Richter’s carpetbagger history, a feeling that he really isn’t concerned with the 3rd District but simply wants to buy his way into a congressional seat wherever it happens to be.” (Golden is a regular columnist for NJ Spotlight News.)
Richter has registered and voted at four different addresses over the past three years.
Richter, who has lived in Lawrenceville with his wife and four daughters for the past 12 years, originally planned to run in the conservative-leaning 2nd Congressional District against rookie Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a moderate Democrat who was also helped by the blue wave two years ago. In 2019, Richter was registered at his Lawrenceville address for his primary vote, and then rented a house in Avalon (2nd District) where he registered and voted in the general election.
A month later, Van Drew defected to the GOP, receiving national headlines along with Trump’s public praise. By his own admission, Richter had no chance in a primary against Van Drew.
So, he set his sights on the adjacent 3rd District. He promptly rented a modest place in Island Heights, within the 3rd, and changed his voter registration to that address. He and his wife voted there in this year’s primary.
His opponent repeatedly called him a “district shopper” during the primary campaign, and Kim is bringing it up as well. Though candidates are not required to live within the district they seek to serve, public opinion usually prompts outside candidates to establish residence before elections.
“He’s made it very clear, he’s looking for how he can win any seat in Congress, and has no interest in which district that is,” Kim told NJ Spotlight News. “Which brings up the broader question … How do we know that he’s looking out for us in the 3rd?”
Richter said if he wins, his plan is to sell his Lawrenceville home and move inside the 3rd District sometime in 2021 after congressional districts are redrawn.
“In the meantime I will maintain my (Island Heights) residence in the 3rd District,” he said.
“Meaning you are going to live there?” he was asked.
“Meaning I have three houses. That’s my official residence. I spend time in all three homes,” he responded.
Asked how much time he spends at his Island Heights apartment, he said, “I’m not going to answer those kinds of questions.”