Trump’s management of pandemic looms over 11th district race

Moderate Republicans who backed Democrat Mikie Sherrill in 2018 may do so again
Credit: (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File; becchiforcongress.com)
In the 11th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill, left, is being challenged by Republican Rosemary Becchi.

Voters in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District are faced with a choice of reelecting an incumbent freshman Democrat who highlights her bipartisan approach to policymaking, or opting for a Republican candidate who is making her first run for legislative office while trying to distance herself from the unpopular President Donald Trump.

Democrat Mikie Sherrill trounced Republican Jay Webber by 57% to 42% in the 2018 midterms in a district that had been represented by Rodney Frelinghuysen, a moderate Republican, for 24 years before that.

Whether Sherrill will survive as a Democrat in the historically Republican district on Nov. 3 will depend on whether its relatively wealthy voters approve of her bipartisan approach to issues including health care, infrastructure, and crucially, the coronavirus, or whether they decide to take a chance with the pro-business, law-and-order platform of her opponent, Rosemary Becchi.

Becchi, a tax lawyer who has worked in the U.S. Senate and the Internal Revenue Service, accuses Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of sending inconsistent signals to New Jersey businesses of when they can and cannot reopen during the pandemic, and says Sherrill supports that approach.

“They haven’t been able to manage their money and manage their businesses because there’s been no clear set of metrics that have been put forward by the Murphy administration in terms of when they will be able to open,” Becchi said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

In the restaurant business, Murphy’s sudden cancellation of a plan to reopen in the early summer was based on reports that some people were ignoring social-distancing rules rather than on standards that could be understood and followed by the business community, Becchi said. “He said it was because of a few knuckleheads; that’s not a way to run a business,” she said.

Becchi, Sherrill trade barbs

Sherrill’s support for Murphy’s policies, Becchi said, is one indication that she is not the moderate Democrat that she told voters she would be in the midterm elections.

“My opponent promised everyone two years ago that she was going to go to Washington and be a different kind of Democrat, and she just has not done that,” Becchi said. “I think that the mood here in the district is that people feel betrayed.”

Sherrill rejected the charge that she has voted in “lockstep” with congressional liberals, arguing that she has led a number of bipartisan initiatives. They include the Northeast Recovery Task Force, which she co-chairs along with Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican, to restart the regional economy after the devastation wrought by the pandemic.

She also co-sponsored a bill to expand access to telehealth to Medicare recipients, along with Oklahoma Republican Rep. Kevin Hern.

“I ran on bipartisanship, I’ve been executing it,” Sherrill said, in an interview. “I’ve had four bills as a freshman signed into law by the president which in these partisan times shows that I’ve consciously made an effort to really get broad bipartisan legislation passed.”

Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, also rebuffed an attack by Becchi claiming she had voted for a bill that would allow criminals to sue police officers.

The Justice in Policing Act, Sherrill said, strikes a balance between protecting police officers and holding them accountable for any abuses such as the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

“We want to make sure that those police officers who are acting without regard for the safety and security of our community are accountable, and that departments who promote that kind of behavior are accountable,” she said.

Referendum on Trump

While issues such as police discipline and infrastructure renewal will likely play a role in the race for the 11th District — which includes parts of Morris, Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties — it will be fundamentally a referendum on  Trump and his management of the coronavirus, Sherrill said.

“This does feel in many ways much more like a national race and I think a lot of that has to do with the pandemic,” she said, noting that New Jersey depends heavily on federal help to curb the infection and restart the economy.

Trump’s repeated efforts to downplay the virus, and his recent public rejection of mask-wearing even though he himself was infected, have alienated 11th District voters in a way that Sherrill predicted will cost her opponent in the polls.

“The majority of people here are very upset about the president’s response and I think that’s something that people in the 11th District have taken note of,” she said. “If you want to look for someone who is not handling the coronavirus well, who’s not putting enough in policy and regulations, is refusing to use the Defense Protection Act to use the full force of our manufacturing base to help this country, is refusing to follow science guidelines, is refusing to move forward in any sort of credible way, it would be the President of the United States.”

Asked whether the 11th District is now actually “blue” after so many years of Republican representation or whether her 2018 win may have been an aberration, Sherrill said many voters have turned their backs on a Republican Party that no longer represents their views.

Voters care about health care, prescription drug costs, federal funding for infrastructure, and environmental protection, all of which have been rejected by the Republican Party under Trump, Sherrill said.

“These are all priorities where the Republican Party is really out of step with our district and with the country,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that the 11th District is necessarily blue, but I would say that the Republican Party has left the 11th District.”

The district is rated “solid” or “safe” Democratic for the current election by analysts at the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections.

For her part, Becchi said she supports the Trump tax cuts of 2017 but worries about the resulting expansion of the federal deficit. “When I agree with the president, I’ll agree with the president; when I don’t, I won’t,” she said.

Although spending on the pandemic has been necessary, she said the resulting expansion of the federal debt leaves a worrying legacy for future generations. She argued that federal deficits could be curbed if the government does more to cut “waste, fraud and abuse.”

On law and order, Becchi said voters are alarmed by street protests around the country and she argued that police departments should be fully funded so that they are able to respond to any disturbances.

The headwinds for Becchi

John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said Becchi is unlikely to unseat a well-funded incumbent who two years ago won the vote of many moderate Republican voters.

“There are enough moderate Republicans that they were open to looking at a Democrat when they were confronted with Jay Webber as a Republican nominee,” he said. “The Republicans moved from a well-known moderate to a much less well-known conservative.”

Now, any Republican candidate for the 11th District has the additional headwind of being linked in voters’ minds with Trump, who was already unpopular in New Jersey in 2018 and is likely more so now, Weingart said.

Even if Trump wins reelection, Republicans will have to decide whether they will remain a party that follows his lead, he said.

“If Trump wins and especially if he loses, Republicans nationwide are going to have to redefine themselves and clarify what they stand for,” he said. “New Jersey is going to be an area where that is both important and very difficult, and this race is emblematic of why that’s the case.”