New Jersey election results could be bad omen for state’s GOP congressmen

New Jersey Democrats were already lining up to challenge Republican Reps. Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen. Tuesday’s results in the state’s gubernatorial election gave them more reason for hope.

“I think the races next year for Republicans are going to be more challenging than they have been in the past," said Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant who’s working for Frelinghuysen.

Republican routs in New Jersey and Virginia — the only two states with gubernatorial races this year — have Democrats and political experts seeing a potential wave coming — one with ominous signs for Lance and Frelinghuysen, who represent the types of well-educated, suburban districts that are showing a backlash to President Donald Trump. If Republicans in Congress end a property-tax deduction that’s popular in New Jersey, the repercussions could be even worse.

The GOP got another surprise on Election Day when 23-year incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo announced he would not seek to his 2nd Congressional District seat in South Jersey. The working-class, rural district bears little resemble to those Lance and Frelinghuysen represent, and it leans Democratic in voter registration. LoBiondo’s announcement seems to have given Democrats at least a 50/50 shot of picking up the seat.

One more troubling sign for the GOP: Democrats performed particularly strong in Burlington County, which makes up half of Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur’s 3rd District seat.

“Every time we go through the [New Jersey election] cycle, I have to talk down the national media about this being a referendum on the president who was just elected a year ago because it never is,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “This year is an exception to the rule.”

New Jersey is represented in the House by seven Democrats and five Republicans. Four of the five GOP seats could be in play next November, while only one Democrat — freshman Josh Gottheimer — appears to have a competitive race on his hands.

Democrats haven’t paid much attention to Lance’s 7th District in recent years, and have never made a serious run at Frelinghuysen’s 11th District. Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore even attempted to run a ficus tree against Frelinghuysen in 2000 to protest the lack of competitive congressional districts.

But six Democrats have already filed with the Federal Election Commission seeking to run against Lance, who’s in his fifth term, while five have filed to run against Frelinghuysen, a 12-term incumbent. Several are political neophytes with impressive resumes, and a few have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mikie Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor from Montclair who’s seeking the Democratic nomination in the 11th District, out-raised the incumbent last quarter, taking in just under $500,000 to Frelinghuysen’s $157,000.

Lance and Frelinghuysen’s districts include the type of well-heeled, upper- and upper-middle-class suburbs that have been staunchly Republican for decades.

Lance’s district, for instance, is home to former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the archetypal moderate northeast Republican. Lance himself is a patrician, the son of Wesley Lance, a prominent state senator who helped shape New Jersey’s Constitution. Frelinghuysen, a Vietnam veteran and heir to the Procter & Gamble empire, has always fit the profile of his district: His family’s prominence in New Jersey predates the American Revolution.

But the districts have been trending bluer in national elections for some time, as the GOP moved right. Trump appears to have hastened that trend.

On Tuesday, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy narrowly carried Somerset County — home to the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster and the heart of Lance’s district — on his way to winning the gubernatorial election.

Morris County, which includes both Frelinghuysen and Lance’s districts, is a Republican bastion and home to Gov. Chris Christie. Republican gubernatorial nominee Kim Guadagno defeated Murphy 53 percent to 45 percent there, but her margin of victory was smaller than the most easily comparable election, in 2005, when Republican Doug Forrester beat Democrat Jon Corzine 56 percent to 41 percent.

“Forty-five percent is a big increase. That’s one sign,” said Debra Caplan, a leader of the group NJ 11th For Change, which came together as activists protested Frelinghuysen’s refusal to hold a town hall meeting as Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare. Caplan also cited Democratic gains in local and state legislative races throughout the county.

“There was a lot of money being spent on those races, a lot of people turning out, a lot of energy on those races. That, to us, was certainly a sign of growing engagement, a sense of frustration with the status quo," she said. "… Some of these towns that were Republican strongholds are no longer the same way.”

Republicans aren’t panicking.

Todd Mitchell, Lance’s chief of staff, provided POLITICO with a partial breakdown of the gubernatorial election results in the congressman’s district, including vote totals from Somerset, Morris, Union and Hunterdon counties. Guadagno carried the district — which Hillary Clinton narrowly won last year — by around seven points. That’s before adding deep-red, rural Warren County, which will likely increase her margin.

“Considering it was supposed to be a bad night for Republicans, I don’t think it was a bad night in the 7th District,” Mitchell said. “I don’t see it being an omen for Leonard.”

DuHaime, the consultant working for Frelinghuysen, said he was waiting for some final numbers from the district, but indicated Tuesday’s results were basically an even split between Murphy and Guadagno.

He also said he believes Frelinghuysen and Lance can overcome any challengers next year.

"I think based on their services in office, the respect they have from their constituents and the fact that they were taking it seriously earlier ultimately means they’ll be successful" he said.

But Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman Peg Schaffer said she thinks Lance, at least, should be worried. Democrats in Somerset won the county clerk’s seat, the party’s first countywide victory since 1979. Schaffer said that at all levels of government, Democrats are seeing a new crop of candidates.

“Several of our candidates were neuroscientists, engineers, doctors,” Schaffer said. “People who had never run before and said ‘I can’t let 2016 happen again. I need to step up.’”

To make matters worse for the GOP, Lance and Frelinghuysen’s districts could be especially hard hit if Republicans in Congress pass a tax bill that curtails the State and Local Tax Deduction, a bill Frelinghuysen would have a large role in shaping as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Even if the bill allows the deduction, but caps it at $10,000, it would still affect many taxpayers in wealthier districts like the 7th and 11th.

“Just as we saw a migration of rural Democrats to the Republican party in the Obama era, we’re seeing a migration of Rockefeller Republicans to the Democrats in the Trump era,” said David Wasserman, house editor of the Cook Political Report.

Wasserman said Lance and Frelinghuysen “were vulnerable before [Tuesday] night and they’re vulnerable after.”

Although seemingly less vulnerable than Lance and Frelinghuysen, MacArthur could also have reason to worry.

Burlington County, which makes up half of his 3rd District, went Democratic at the county level and came within a few hundred votes of huge upsets in an Assembly race not even Democrats thought was competitive.

MacArthur has tied himself to Trump more closely than any other New Jersey Republican congressman, crafting an amendment that briefly revived a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, raising money with the president and, most recently, signaling support for the GOP’s controversial tax plan.

“Anyone running for Congress next year needs to pay attention to the results and needs to run a campaign that doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen,” said Chris Russell, a consultant for MacArthur. “To me, it’s not an alarm bell by any stretch, but it’s certainly something to pay attention to and the campaign next year seeks to make sure that’s taken into account.”

CORRECTION: Hillary Clinton narrowly won Lance’s district in last year’s presidential election. That was misstated in the original version of this story.

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