Expect Hot Senate and House Races in New Jersey This Fall

Menendez Race Close; Dems Stand Chance in Districts Usually Solid Republican
Aug 29, 2018

Although politicians seem to be constantly running for office these days, 365 days a year, year in and year out, Labor Day is traditionally considered to be the opening day of the election season in the U.S. But there could be more political fireworks in these parts this fall than have been seen for quite a long while.

Federal elections in blue New Jersey and red Southern Ocean County have been rather predictable for decades. A Republican hasn’t served in the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Cory Booker since 1979. And a Republican hasn’t been elected to the seat currently held by Democrat Robert Menendez since 1959.

New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Southern Ocean County save the western half of Stafford Township and all of Barnegat Township, has been represented by the retiring Republican Frank LoBiondo since 1995. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes half of Stafford and all of Barnegat, has been in Republican hands since 1993 with the exception of one-term Democratic Rep. John Adler, who served from 2009 to 2011.

This autumn, though, could be very different, at least in terms of the closeness of elections.

Menendez handily won his previous two election races for the Senate. In 2006 he defeated Thomas Kean Jr., the son of a popular former New Jersey governor, with 53 percent of the vote to Kean’s 45 percent. In 2012 Menendez crushed Republican Joe Kyrillos by a 58.9 percent to 39.4 percent margin.

But in 2015 Menendez was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on federal corruption charges for alleged favors he did for Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, in return for campaign contributions and gifts such as private flights. His trial ended up with a hung jury and a mistrial. It was reported the jury had voted not guilty by a 10-2 count and the Justice Department ended up dropping all charges against Menendez.

But the episode provided Republican opponent Bob Hugin, a biotech corporation executive, with a major talking point. Hugin didn’t wait for the Labor Day kickoff to run millions of dollars of attack ads against Menendez and the summer onslaught has apparently paid off.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last Wednesday showed Menendez ahead, but only by a 43 percent to 37 percent margin. A Quinnipiac poll in March had Menendez up by 17 points.

Last Wednesday’s poll contained more bad news for Menendez. It showed Hugin leading Menendez among all-important independent voters, 37 percent to 33.

Menendez started responding to Hugin’s challenge last week when he finally launched his own TV ads attacking Hugin. The question is if he can afford to wage an ad battle with Hugin over the next couple of months. According to the Federal Election Commission, Hugin, who can pump millions of his own dollars into the race, has raised $16,720,776 for his campaign. Menendez has raised $6,134,561.

The race in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District between GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur and his Democratic opponent Andy Kim is even tighter than the Menendez/Hugin affair. A Monmouth University poll released on Aug. 14 showed Kim leading MacArthur, 45 to 44 percent.

That’s unusual territory for MacArthur, who easily defeated Democrat Aimee Belgard, 54 to 44.4 percent, in his first congressional race in 2014. He slaughtered Democrat Frederick Lavergne by a 62.8 to 37.2 percent margin in 2016.

Kim, though, unlike Belgard and especially Lavergne, has proven to be an effective fundraiser. The latest figures from the Federal Election Commission shows the Democrat has raised $2,166,597 to MacArthur’s $2,357,697.

The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan online newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns, had the 3rd District “Leaning Republican” throughout the summer. But on Aug. 15 Cook switched the district to “Toss Up.” Another political newsletter, Inside Elections, said the 3rd District was “Likely Republican” until the end of July. Inside Elections moved the district to “Lean Republican” on July 31 and to “Tilt Republican” (the next step would be “Toss Up”) on Aug. 17. Yet another nonpartisan election forecasting newsletter, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, called the district “Lean Republican” until Aug. 23 when it moved it into the “Toss Up” column.

Crystal Ball made its decision to classify the MacArthur/Kim race a toss-up reluctantly.

“We’ve been resistant to moving Rep. Tom MacArthur from Leans Republican to Toss-up, but we’re going to go ahead and do it. A recent Monmouth University poll showed an effective tie in the race between MacArthur and former Obama administration official Andy Kim. Two things continue to work in MacArthur’s favor: 1.) NJ-3 was modified in such a way in the last round of redistricting that made it more Republican (Trump won it by about half a dozen points), and 2.) MacArthur is personally wealthy and can considerably self-fund (although Kim has been a dynamite fundraiser himself). On the other hand, MacArthur played a key role in getting the Republican Affordable Care Act alternative through the House (it died in the Senate), and Democrats will use that against him.”

If the U.S. Senate and 3rd Congressional District races appear to be closer than normal, New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional race between Democratic State Senator Jeff Van Drew and former Republican Atlantic County Freeholder Seth Grossman could be a game changer, moving the Democrats one seat closer to taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Remember, LoBiondo has held the 2nd District seat since 1995 and won every single one of his re-election races with at least 59 percent of the vote. But it seems that Grossman is no LoBiondo.

There hasn’t yet been a public poll of the Van Drew/Grossman race. But a Public Policy Polling generic poll in November 2017 had any Democratic candidate beating any Republican by five percentage points in the 2nd District. Grossman hasn’t done much to improve his chances since then.

In July the National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew its support for Grossman after Media Matters reported the candidate had shared an article from a website associated with white nationalist writings. All of the aforementioned political newsletters have the 2nd District ranked as “Likely Democrat.”

Most importantly, the latest Federal Election Commission figures show that Van Drew had out-raised Grossman more than 10 to 1, with the former raising $1,043,025 while his opponent had raised a mere $87,842.

— Rick Mellerup



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