As candidates in the third district hunker down for the final days of an election season defined by a global pandemic, Republican challenger David Richter is pinning his hopes on President Donald Trump.
“It largely depends on how well Trump does. The better he does in the district, the better I’m going to do,” he said, adding he believed his campaign would run a point or two behind the president, whose chances at re-election the Republican said polls are undervaluing.
Richter, the former CEO of the construction management firm Hill International, is running to oust Rep. Andy Kim (D-Marlton), a first-term Democrat who won his seat in New Jersey’s closest 2018 House race.
Kim’s race against Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-Toms River) wasn’t called until more than a week after the election, and his victory came in large part due to the Republican’s support of his party’s doomed 2017 health plan.
The president’s chances of winning New Jersey are non-existent. Polls have consistently put him down more than 20 points statewide, but there’ve been almost no polls in the third district, which Trump carried by six points in 2016. Richter said he expects Trump to fare even better this time around.
Despite race raters putting Kim’s chances at victory somewhere between favored and assured, the congressman is taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t really pay attention to those, because they’re using any and all outside information,” he said. “I see this on the ground with just much more detail, and I live and breathe this. We’re not going off of those ratings at all. We feel like we have an even greater, granular understanding of what’s happening.”
Richter has largely discounted those ratings as well, saying they lent to much weight to Kim’s fundraising advantage and underestimated Trump’s strength in the district.
“The fact is the guy who raises more money doesn’t always win the race, and right now that’s all they’re looking at because there hasn’t been any polling done in this race since the summer,” he said.
At this point, both campaigns have shifted their focus to boosting turnout, though many in the district have already voted.
The congressman has started holding socially distanced rallies at secure ballot drop boxes in the state, urging voters to vote there or hand their mail-in ballots off to county election officials amid continued concerns about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle the national influx of mail-in and absentee ballots.
“It’s very convenient for people, especially if they’re concerned about mail getting there in a timely way. Here in the last couple days, I think the drop boxes are key,” the incumbent said. “We’re just trying to draw attention to it. We’ve done now two of these, and they’ve gone really great. We just tried to gather some folks together. It doesn’t take very long. People enjoy being able to just see me in person and say a few words to me.”
On top of those, he’s held car parades and done some door-to-door canvassing.
Richter’s campaign is also urging their voters to get ballots back early, through either a drop box or a hand-delivery to election boards.
A spike in New Jersey’s virus cases has prevented the campaign from holding as many in-person events as it would like, though they’ve still been canvassing door-to-door and conducting literature drops. Much of their focus, however, has gone to digital platforms.
“We’ve focused much more on a grassroots effort to try to reach out and make direct voter contact, and we’ve done that through knocking on doors and dropping literature at people’s homes,” Richter said. “We’ve done it through phone calls. We’ve done it through texting. We’ve done it through emails, and we’ve done it, obviously, very heavily through social media.”
Still, the incumbent’s cash advantage means Richter’s been outspent in direct Facebook ad buys.
Between Oct. 22 and Oct. 28, the incumbent put $21,615 worth of ads on Facebook and Instagram, while Richter’s paid $2,229. The challenger’s total spending for the cycle is $56,418 to Kim’s comparatively staggering $679,966.
On Friday, the incumbent had 237 ads running. The challenger had 120. With Facebook’s ad blackout in effect, those numbers can only go down as election day nears.
Given Kim’s staggering fundraising lead, the numbers could be worse. Through Oct. 15, the incumbent raised nearly $6.8 million to Richter’s roughly $1.5 million. About half of the challenger’s funds came from his own pocket.
Both campaigns have burned through much of their cash reserves, though the advantage there still lies with the incumbent. He had $852,640 banked on Oct. 15. Richter had $101,399.
Still, both campaigns will stay up on television through Nov. 3. Those spots are supplemented by outside spending on either side.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is airing ads hitting Richter on his record at Hill International, while the Republican Jewish Coalition in early September launched an ad hammering Kim over his time as a national security advisor in President Barack Obama’s administration.
There too, the spending advantage is with the Democrat. Groups backing Kim or opposing Richter have put more than $3.5 million into the race, while Republican groups topped out at about $600,000.
Still, Richter sees his chances improving as Republicans close the gap on Democrats’ advantage in early mail-in ballot returns.
“The numbers started heavily in the Democrats’ favor,” Richter said. “They’re narrowing, and we expect them to flip on election day, so we feel pretty confident about where things stand right now.”
In Burlington, which delivered Kim his 2018 win and has since moved toward becoming a staunch Democratic stronghold, Democrats account for 47.8% of returned ballots, while Republicans are 26.8% of the total, and unaffiliated voters constitute 24.8% of returns.
Those numbers are better in Ocean, where Republicans lead Democrats in mail-in ballot returns 39.8%-28.4%. Another 30.9% came from Ocean County’s unaffiliated voters, who tend to swing toward the GOP.
Still, the Burlington portion of the third district has 290,550 voters — 115,450 Democrats, 75,530 Republicans and 96,460 unaffiliated voters — to Ocean’s 161,493. In that half of the district, there are 57,097 eligible Republicans, 38,939 Democrats and 63,168 largely GOP-leaning unaffiliated voters.
To Kim, it’s all good news.
“I feel like there’s an incredible amount of energy in this district,” he said. “We’ve already seen the number of people voting so far has exceeded the total number of the 2018 race, so that is just great to hear. That’s exactly what we wanted: As many people as we can to make sure that their voices are heard and that they’re able to vote in a way that keeps them safe in whatever way that they want to.”