Republicans Plot Comeback in New Jersey

Republicans are targeting several House seats they lost to Democrats in New Jersey last year as they look to come back after losing nearly all of their seats in the state.

August 18, 2019
The Hill

Republicans are targeting several House seats they lost to Democrats in New Jersey last year as they look to come back after losing nearly all of their seats in the state.

Republicans lost four New Jersey House seats in 2018 as voters angry with President Trump and former Gov. Chris Christie (R) punished their party. The GOP had already lost a seat in the state in 2016. 

In 2020, the GOP thinks it has a decent chance of winning back three of those seats — if things break the right way. But it won’t be easy, and Democrats are optimistic that they’ll hold all of the seats.

“I think the Democratic incumbents are at least slightly favored in all four of the districts that flipped in 2018, but Republicans have a chance in all of them,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, who has worked in New Jersey state government during both Democratic and Republican administrations.

New Jersey has long voted for Democrats for president and senator, but the state has typically been more mixed in House and state-level races.

However, Republicans have fared poorly in recent congressional elections. While the GOP held six of the state’s 12 House seats before the 2016 elections, they now hold only one of them.

The remaining Republican lawmaker, Rep. Chris Smith, has taken moderate stances, such as voting for legislation to raise the minimum wage and co-sponsoring legislation with Democrats aimed at preventing gun violence.

Wins in New Jersey could help Republicans take back the House. Depending on the outcome of a special election in North Carolina, Republicans will need to have a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win the chamber in 2020.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said Republicans don’t need to win back all of the New Jersey districts they lost last year but that “you’d think they’d have to win at least one or two.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) lists all five New Jersey districts that flipped in 2016 and 2018 as targets. A GOP aide with knowledge of Republicans’ 2020 strategy said that the state’s 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts are good pickup opportunities.

Republicans plan to link the incumbent Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and to freshman progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to argue that Congressional Democrats have become too liberal. And they hope that a presidential election year will boost Republican turnout, helping them win over the districts that Trump carried in 2016, though the president remains largely unpopular in the state.

Democrats don’t plan to make it easy. A national Democratic strategist said that some of the New Jersey races could be tough but that the incumbents are focused on local issues, such as an unpopular cap on the state and local tax deduction in Trump’s tax law and advancing the Gateway Project to build a new tunnel between New York and New Jersey.

The New Jersey race that is thought to be most competitive is the 3rd District in the southern part of the state, which is currently represented by freshman Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, a former State Department official who beat two-term Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) last year.

The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate the race as a “toss-up.”

For Democrats, “the 3rd District will be the hardest to hold on to,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Trump carried the district by about 6 points in 2016, even as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton prevailed over Trump by nearly 15 points in the state.

No Republican has formally entered the race yet, though Republicans are excited that former Burlington County elected official Kate Gibbs is reportedly considering running.

Kim has been focused on meeting with his constituents. By the end of August, he will have held 11 town halls in his district since taking office.

“Everywhere I go, the people of this district know what’s at stake next year, and they’re ready to fight for a government that works for them,” Kim said in a statement to The Hill. “I’m going to keep working to put my community first.”

The 2nd District, currently held by Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D), and the 7th District, held by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D), are also seen as potential pickup opportunities. These races are rated as leaning Democratic by both The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

The 2nd District, at the southern tip of the state, is more blue-collar than some of the other districts in New Jersey, and Trump carried the district in 2016 by 4.6 points.

Several Republicans have announced their candidacies for the seat, including businessman David Richter, defense contractor program manager Brian Fitzherbert, and former Trump administration Social Security official Bob Patterson.

Republicans plan to argue that Van Drew is too liberal for the district, which voted twice for former President Obama but had long been held by GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo until he retired in early 2019.

“With a well-run campaign, it’s a very winnable race,” said Ethan Zorfas, a general consultant for the Fitzherbert campaign.

Chris Russell, a consultant with the Richter campaign, said that “there’s a lot of history of recent Republican success” in the district and Van Drew’s success in 2018 was “the outlier, not the rule.”

Van Drew, who fashions himself as a moderate, said he feels positive about his chances of winning reelection.

“I feel good. The reason that I do is partially because I try to be, and I believe I am, an independent thinker,” he told The Hill in an interview. “I’ve been fortunate that I have support cross party, Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

Political analysts said that Van Drew’s profile as a moderate and the fact that he’s well-known in the district from his previous tenure as a state senator pose challenges for Republicans.

“He has been around so long in that part of the state that he really has his own following,” Murray said.

The 7th District, represented by Malinowski, is one of the wealthiest and most highly educated districts in the country and includes some suburbs of New York City. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district in the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans think they have a good shot at winning back the 7th District because of their confidence in one of the candidates vying for the GOP nomination in the race, Tom Kean.

Kean is the minority leader of the state senate and the son of a popular former governor. The NRCC on Friday placed him in its Young Guns program that mentors and supports candidates.

“[Kean] has a recognized brand in the district,” said Harrison Nealy, a consultant with Kean’s campaign.

Republicans also see the race as attractive because they view Malinowski as too liberal for the district. Malinowski, unlike many other freshman lawmakers in competitive districts, has come out in support of an impeachment inquiry for Trump.

But political analysts warn that Trump is unpopular in the district, which is emblematic of the type of affluent, suburban seat where Republicans especially struggled last year.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that Malinowski has been focused on issues of importance to his constituents.

“Tom Malinowski is one of Congress’s most vocal advocates for the Gateway Tunnel and is a proven fighter for common-sense gun safety legislation,” a source close to the incumbent’s campaign said. “He strives every day to make decisions based on principle, not politics, and is focused solely on being available and responsive to the needs of his constituents.”

The NRCC has also named New Jersey’s 5th and 11th districts as targets, but those races are viewed as less likely to be competitive. The Cook Political Report rates both as “likely Democratic,” while Sabato’s Crystal Ball views them as safe for Democrats.

Both of these districts are located in the New York suburbs and are represented by Democrats who are viewed as moderates and adept fundraisers.

No Republican is currently challenging freshman Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D) in the 11th District. But several Republicans have announced that they are running in the 5th District, represented by two-term Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who also faces a Democratic challenger. 

“Since the day I decided to run for Congress, I’ve been relentlessly focused on making people’s lives better in New Jersey and across the country,” Sherrill said in a statement to The Hill. “I’m prioritizing issues that will secure our future: getting rid of the [state and local tax] deduction cap, lowering health care costs, and improving our infrastructure.”