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Democrats eyeing four NJ House seats

By David Wildstein

The path to a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives runs straight through New Jersey, where as many as four Republican House seats are potentially up for grabs in the 2018 mid-term election.

Democrats are the early favorites to pick up the second district seat in South Jersey, where Republican Frank LoBiondo is retiring after twelve terms. The front-runner is State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a slightly right-of-center Democrat who wins his own legislative district by enormous margins. So far, the Republicans haven’t found a candidate who can beat him. This is a district that Donald Trump won by four points.

Another 12-term Republican, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, faces the toughest general election of his 44-year political career. Some national political pundits, like Somerset County native David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, have already put this race in the toss-up column. For thirty years, Democrats couldn’t give away the nomination to run in the traditionally Republican eleventh district; the last twelve candidates to run against Frelinghuysen raised a combined $502,000. Now, two of the candidates have raise more than $1 million.

Rep. Leonard Lance, a five-term Republican from the seventh district, won 54% in 2016, in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by one percentage point. Six Democrats are vying for the chance to take Lance on.

Some Republican insiders think Lance is vulnerable in a Republican primary; he won just 54% against two challengers in 2016. But no significant opponent has emerged.

The toughest to beat of the four GOP incumbents is Rep. Tom MacArthur, a deep-pocketed and highly visible two-termer. MacArthur emigrated from Morris County when Jon Runyan had enough of Congress and spent about $5 million of his own money to win the seat. He won 54% in the very Republican year of 2014, and 59% in 2016 against a challenger with no money or organizational support. Trump beat Clinton in the third district by 22,604 votes (51%-45%). Democrats only beat MacArthur if the anti-Trump shift in New Jersey is seismic enough.

Democrats seem a bit underwhelmed by Andy Kim, the former Obama administration official who is the likely challenger to Rep. Tom MacArthur in the third district. That doesn’t mean he won’t win – it’s just that the seat is still leans Republican at this time.

On paper, the guy Democrats should be looking at is Brick Mayor John Ducey. Brick is the second-largest town in MacArthur’s district, and Ducey appears enormously popular there. He won 62% in 2013 and was re-elected in 2017 with 67%; Kim Guadagno carried Brick with 62%, which means Ducey ran 31 points ahead of the top of his ticket.

The problem with the 47-year-old mayor, I am told, is that he’s not yet ready for prime time. Democrats don’t think Ducey can raise the money to compete with MacArthur, and with a growing law practice, probably was never interested in running for Congress anyway. Minor league baseball teams are full of guys with great stats who will never hit major league pitching.

The only safe Republican is Christopher Smith, the 64-year-old dean of the New Jersey delegation who was first elected in 1980. Only two other Congressmen have served longer than Smith. Smith won his fourth district seat with 64% in 2016; Trump carried it by fourteen points.

Kim had raised $255,187, according to his 3Q FEC filing — a decent showing. To put those numbers into some perspective: in Aimee Belgard, a Burlington County Freeholder who was MacArthur’s 2013 opponent, had raised $175,942 by the end of 2013. Democrats will be more impressed if Kim files with closer to a half million.

The current map, in effect since congressional redistricting for the 2012 election, was drawn to elect six Democrats and six Republicans. Four years later, Democrats picked up one of those seats when Josh Gottheimer unseated Scott Garrett by four points in a district that Trump won by one point.

Republicans hope to make Gottheimer a one-term Congressman. Their most likely candidate is conservative leader Steve Lonegan, who’s been a force in New Jersey politics since he unseated Bogota Mayor Leonard Nicolosi in 1995.

The good news for Lonegan is that he carried the fifth district by 540 votes (50.1%) in his 2013 U.S. Senate race against Cory Booker. The bad news is he hasn’t won an election in fifteen years. He’s also lost general elections for State Senator (1997) and Congressman (1998), and unsuccessfully sought Republican nominations for Bergen County Executive (2002, at the GOP convention), Governor (2005 and 2009), and Congress (2014, vs. MacArthur in South Jersey).

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