Guest Column

INSIDERNJ Dive In: Where the 2018 Congressional Contests Stack Up (RIGHT NOW!)

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Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ). Credits: Courtesy of InsiderNJ.com
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This Guest Column was originally published by INSIDERNJ, and re-published here with the permission and courtesy of INSIDERNJ and its publisher, Max Pizarro.  Max Pizarro is a premier political analyst, respected by members of both parties.  INSIDERNJ is the go-to column for people who want up to the moment political news.

It was nearly a year ago, and a bow-tied U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10) stood in stately gentility amid the sharp-elbowed swarm of commuters in Newark Penn Station as he considered where Democrats would have an opportunity to pick up House seats in 2018.

Safely cocooned from the GOP in a plus 36-Democratic District, according to the Cook Report, Payne instinctively spoke to the political safety of his colleague, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5), who snatched his seat away from a Republican incumbent in 2016 and presumably would need every piece of party instrumentation at his disposal to defend in the coming federal campaign year.

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The priority for Democrats, said Payne, would have to be Gottheimer.

“We’ll see what happens and where they decide to go but I’m just working on securing Josh Gottheimer’s [CD5] seat. I told the DCCC, ‘let’s hold onto what we have to make sure that’s secure, and then move forward,’ said the Newark Congressman. “We’ll see what 2018 has in store. There could be great opportunities in the mid-term.”

A year later, few in his party would object to Payne’s assessment, but today, in what the Democratic National Campaign Committee (DCCC) sees as a perfect storm of President Donald J. Trump’s negative approval ratings in the Garden State (ticking up somewhat from dumpster fire low thirties to 40% this past week, according to Quinnipiac), new engagement by anti-Trump women voters and activists, and the unpopularity of the Trump tax plan’s elimination of state and property tax deductions, Gottheimer has company on a campaigns and elections stage.

When Payne stood in that train station in 2017, neither he nor anyone else foresaw incumbent Republicans U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) deciding against running for reelection. Now, as Washington Democrats look to claim 24 seats in order to seesaw control of Congress from Republican to Democrats, they salivate with opportunity in New Jersey.

The NJ Democratic Congressional delegation outnumbers Republicans 7-5, and with Frelinghuysen and LoBiondo done, how many seats can Dems realistically pick up this year, in this environment, with control of the House at stake?

Two?

Three?

Here’s InsiderNJ’s district by district breakdown of those hotspots where national Democrats signal radar screen interest as they attempt to build 24 wins nationwide and depose Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI):

CD5

Democratic Incumbent: Josh Gottheimer

Republican Challengers: Bergen Attorney John McCann and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.

Having deposed newly employed Scott Garrett in a Republican-leaning district in 2016, Gottheimer

Lonegan

Lonegan

quickly set about branding himself as a bipartisan congressman as a member of the “Problem Solvers Caucus.” Forged as an old school group, the caucus combines battleground Democrats and Republicans less interested in fire-breathing takedowns and more curiously disposed to actually break down rational policy points. While it arguably hasn’t endeared Gottheimer to the trashcan lid-pounding wing of his party, the caucus covers him for that critical challenge he has every two years of getting past a Republican in a Republican-leaning district.

Keyed into the demands of his own reelection, Gottheimer infuriated CD7 Democrats when he threw a lifeline to U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) – and simultaneously took a lifeline from Lance – by hammering out a co-authored a Problem-Solvers alternative to the Trump SALT hit. Eager to get on the party’s national campaign priority list, they felt the Gottheimer-Lance bill offered window dressing in the midst of a Trump-created tax crisis, and resented what they saw as the empowerment of a politically floundering Lance.

But back to Payne’s point, Gottheimer wants to protect what the party already possesses, and, in the words of Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato, if a primary challenger sticks his or head up, the party organizations’ support for Gottheimer will more than handle it.

Having hauled $3 million this year, the incumbent now has about $2.6 million cash on hand.

So far, McCann ($128,400 cash on hand) has shown little ability to bulk up financially, and has mostly run from taking difficult stances on issues, such as the Trump tax plan. Encumbered by toxic Bergen County Republican Chairman Paul DiGaetano, he also appears organizationally challenged just in time for a primary with movement conservative Lonegan.

Proving his financial viability, Lonegan has already stacked in excess of $1.2 million for his effort (mostly consisting of a $1 million loan to his campaign), and right now has just over $1 million COH. He’ll have the Garrett wing of the party in Warren and Sussex, and possesess that old Bergen toehold that goes back to his having served as the mayor of Bogota.

Few give McCann much chance against him, but the fear among Republicans is that the primary-favored Lonegan in a general will enable Gotthemer to simply dust off the case he made against Lonegan’s fellow movement conservative Garrett.  That case amounts to this: movement conservative purity of the kind practiced by Lonegan and Garrett saddles taxpayers, who have to take up the slack locally for federal grant monies denied on ideological grounds. Well-connected financially – then as now – Gottheimer browbeat Garret with precisely that message, and now he faces the prospect of a challenger who went on record with News 12’s Luke Margolis saying he’d reject federal Hurricane Sandy funds.

Gottheimer world may have preferred an uncluttered 2018 stage, and an opportunity to have their guy play Henry V, rather than have to be simply part of an enormous ensemble Les Miserables cast.

Last year. the 5th was a plus-3 Republican district, according to Cook.

Now, in this weather and with Gottheimer aggressively engaged, it’s plus-5.

CD2

In the midst of Trump’s detonation of your grandmother’s Republican Party, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2), a pro-labor, middle of the road Republican, cried uncle. In November of last year, Harry Hurley reported that LoBo – in office since 1995 – wouldn’t run for reelection.

State Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1) immediately emerged as the favorite to succeed him, based on a ten-year record of clobbering Republicans districtwide, consistently stepping to their right, suffocating them with an Iraq War running mate who lost his legs in combat, and gently providing Gov. Chris Christie empowerment where needed on budget and other critical votes.

Republicans don’t yet have a clear-the-decks candidate, or even anyone who has a penny in the bank as a declared candidate.

Former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-2) looked like a strong early contender for party love, but Hurley reported earlier this month that the Egg Harbor engineer would not be running this year. Having impressed Republicans with a third-place statewide finish in last year’s GOP Primary for Governor, Hirsh Singh of Linwood looked viable – but his tentacles now project more in the direction of a Senate contest than Congress.

Republicans Brian Thomas Fitzherbert and Mark McGovern have cash reserves totaling zero, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Cook this week upgraded the plus-1 Republican CD2 to leans Democrat.

Now, Van Drew will still have to get through a primary presumably, as retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood remains in contention. But unless the GOP can summon a viable fundraising alternative, the Democrat – connected to the same party machinery that sustains safe-district Democrat U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) – appears in a strong position, with the potential to gently steal thunder from CD5.

CD11

The leafy district Congressman’s august family goes back 250 years to the Revolutionary War, and yet it took 12 months of Trump to unhorse the latest iteration of Team Frelinghuysen. Beset by protesters mobilizing weekly outside his Morristown office, the Congressman made arguably the fatal error of writing a letter to the political ally kingpin of a bank, in print fingering bank employee Saily Avelenda as “one of the ringleaders” of the movement against him. When the letter got out there, it enflamed an already-agitated Democratic electorate consisting by and large of women in the streets incensed by Trump.

Former Navy helicopter pilot and former prosecutor Mikie Sherrill could take a victory lap in the aftermath of Frelinghuysen’s flame-out.

She was in the race, and according to the latest FEC numbers, performing strongly on the fundraising front. Having amassed $1.2 million, Sherrill has $822,000 in the bank right now as the GOP scrambles on a shortened runway to find a replacement for the Congressman whose personal stewardship of the district since 1995  maintained CD11 safely in GOP hands.

Sherrill

Mikie Sherrill outside Frelinghuysen’s district office.

With Frelinghuysen out, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) gave the elder statesman a few days to let the shock of his imminent departure abate, then stepped up.

“I’m all in,” Webber said, as other Republicans wavered.

Webber – one of the most conservative members of the Legislature who takes a no-exceptions stance on abortion – worries Republicans who prefer a strategy – in this environment in particular – of putting up a more moderate alternative.

The assemblyman faces the thorny challenge of trying to align a home county (Morris) that has no party line and at the moment suffers a behind the scenes fistfight between pooh-bah senators Tony Bucco, Sr. and Joe Pennacchio. The division allows Bucco’s son, Assemblyman Tony Bucco, Jr. (R-25) to exercise his own option to examine a CD11 candidacy.

The politically crippled (or at least challenged) condition of Morris – with Essex-based former Acting

Webber.

Governor Dick Codey (a Sherrill ally) once pushed into punishing Morris by redistricting, now reveling in an opportunity to leave a lasting Democratic Party imprint on the once-GOP-dominant county [a combination of Christie and Trump toxicity propelled a mayoral win by Democrats last year in Parsippany, a burgh classically controlled by the GOP, signaling new Dem frontiers] – has GOP party leaders in Essex and Passaic looking to play pigskin in the 11th district.

The name of former Jets center Nick Mangold hung like a rainbow in the eyes of Essex Party Chairman Al Barlas and Totowa chieftain Peter Murphy for a single afternoon Thursday, before Mangold tweeted his decision not to pursue a run.

Sussex County Freeholder Sylvia Petillo offered an option to those who prefer a female GOP candidate to help stymie Sherrill, but the 22-year elected official veteran lacks fundraising chops.

Webber looked better positioned than anyone at the end of the week, with existing in-house GOP challenges before him as Essex and Passaic still sniffed the district for a game-changer.

Now, if Republicans could not reach consensus, they could exult somewhat in not being without company.

Sherrill herself faced a primary.

Granted, she owned the critical support of the Democratic Party organizations districtwide, but counselor Tamara Harris had nearly half a million in the bank and showed no signs of budging from the contest.

Still, it was arguably Sherrill’s candidacy – the combination of backstory, fundraising, and organization – that caused the DCCC to designate the 11th District a Red to blue option and put it firmly in the sights of Democrats seeking a second pick-up to CD2; a moral victory for those forces first galvanized by Frelinghusyen’s Avelenda misstep.

Designating CD11 a toss-up district, Cook listed the district this week as Plus-3 GOP.

CD3

Ambitious, and lingering as a statewide option on the strength of his personal wealth, U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur  (R-3) was the lone congressperson in New Jersey to vote in favor of Trump’s tax plan.

Former Obama official Democrat Andy Kim wants a piece of him.

MacArthur: nearly $1 million cash on hand.

Kim: nearly half a million COH

It’s going to be a general election contest to watch, with Kim in a position to tether MacArthur to Trump. But Trump did well in Burlington in 2016, where Republican freeholders won despite the GOP’s history of losing down-ballot contests in presidential years.

“If Democrats win CD3, New Jersey has become Massachusetts,” a Republican just told InsiderNJ in a coffee shop conversation.

Cook rates CD3 likely Republican, plus-3 MacArthur.

CD7

Unlike Frelinghuysen, who opted out of town hall meetings as Trump World began sapping oxygen, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) hit the new tide head on, holding town hall meetings to talk directly with

Weber

Trump-incensed constituents.

At his first town hall meeting at Raritan Valley Community College, facing a horde of standing-room-only opponents and the glare of national media cameras waiting for him to stumble, a composed Lance stood alone onstage and diffused one inflamed voter by asking, on the heels of an angry question, if the gentleman had a follow-up.

Kill them with gentility, was the apparent strategy.

The Republican version of his chum Gottheimer in this cycle, the districtwide ubiquitous Lance ($608K

Malinowski, left, and Salmon.

COH, according to the FEC) scheduled another town hall for tomorrow morning. While voting the controversial tax plan out of committee, he truncated critics by opposing it on the floor.

Having tacked right (dangerously, by the reckoning of some of his Somerset GOP allies) during the Obama years after a rough first term, in which he found himself hit hard from the right of his party following his aye vote on cap and trade and beset for eight years by rightward challenges, Lance in the Trump years pivoted safely back to moderate Lance.

It angered Democrats who felt they saw a too obvious strand of political opportunism in the incumbent, and the field soon crowded with contenders for the seat.

The pack of people still in the race to face Lance consists of Berkeley banker Linda Weber, former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, attorney Goutam Jois, social worker Peter Jacob, environmentalist David Pringle, and attorney Scott Salmon.

Just this past week, community activist Lisa Mandelblatt of Westfield – pancaked days earlier in Hunterdon County with a zero-vote performance in an open convention – pulled the plug on her candidacy and threw her support to Malinowski.

Having lost two duels with Weber for organizational support in Somerset and Essex, Malinowski notched another win with Mandelblatt on the heels of his stunning first-ballot victory in Hunterdon last Sunday. Even Weber’s supporters worry about her fundraising (she now has about $130K in the bank to Malinowski’s near half a million haul in about half the time).

Trying to coordinate inter-county support for Weber, the organization thought it couldn’t miss with a woman in this political weather, but Malinowski continues to gnaw away at that argument with a deft mix of solid debate performances, stockpiled cash and now the Mandelblatt buzzer handshake.

Union – like Somerset and unlike Hunterdon – has a convention process that admits the votes of each of the municipal party leaders of the 13 county towns in the district. Weber and Malinowski will have to wait until after Feb. 21st (a scheduled showdown for the party chairmanship of the county among three contenders: Acting Chair Colleen Mahr, state Senator Nick Scutari [D-22], and Hillside Democratic Chairman Anthony Salters) in order to resolve what could well be primary. For if Weber lands Union in addition to her stacked counties of Somerset and Essex, she will be a tough out in June, particularly if all the other candidates remain in the contest and prevent Malinowski from being the lone alternative. If Malinowski lands Union – and he has a definite in with Scutari-aligned Executive Director Nick Fixmer, who told InsiderNJ that he wants to work for Malikowski, and the signaled support of Westfield for the chairmanship on the heels of the Westfield Party-connected Mandelblatt getting out of the race – he will have the edge in the primary.

So – no disrespect intended to Warren, which has a scheduled open convention tomorrow – it probably all comes down to Union in the Democratic Primary.

Ironically, when Lance first ran a decade ago, he was the one who had to chop through a crowded GOP field in the primary and burn money in the process while Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-22) waited on the sidelines and stocked cash for presumably an Obama change-time aided general election showdown. Lance prevailed in the primary with next to money left in his account, then turned around in a difficult environment and blew out Stender by 11 points.

Now Lance apparently has little to worry about in the primary while Democrats kill one another.

But, as evidenced by his scheduled town hall event tomorrow, he does not intend to hit the snooze alarm.

The combination of an unresolved Democratic Primary, and oxygenated CD2, CD11 and CD5 districts, puts the 7th in the plus 3 category for Lance, according to Cook; advantage CD11 over CD7 for the Dems on account of the GOP having to plug an opening with a new body for Frelinghuysen while Lance – more attune to the political challenges in a harder district as he arrived in 2018 – trudges onward.

CD4

Designating this U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4)-dominant area a targeted district looks like a head-fake more than anything by the DCCC, as this week they added it to their list of seven Republican-held districts, which already includes MacArthur, Lance, and the seats being vacated by LoBo and Frelinghuysen. 

But the times, as Dylan once sang, are a -changing, Democrats argue.

Apparently facing no significant GOP Primary opposition, Smith suits on nearly $400K cash on hand, as

Thompson

their Democratic contenders wage the hardest fought primary of the season.

Tavern owner/activist Jim Keady (the guy whom Christie once barked at on the boardwalk) is running to the left and has $61K in the bank. Navy veteran Josh Welle is outraising Keady ($133K in the bank) but faces the challenge of a progressive-army-minded Keady.

It’s Army v. Navy, of sorts, with a crowd-regaling Keady answering Welle’s action stories about service in the war-torn Middle East with his own tales of lying on cement floors as a dirt-wages Nike Sneaker protester in the Far East.

A third contender, Navy veteran and music teacher Mike Keeling has zero in the bank.

Cook doesn’t put this race in play for the stoutly pro-life but district-protected (heavy on Monmouth and Ocean counties) Smith. You’d have to go back to 1980 and the corruption crack-up of U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson to when a Democrat last held the seat.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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