People who know Rodney Frelinghuysen were not especially shocked by his decision to retire, even though he was at the zenith of his political career. He always wanted to be a congressman, like his father. But he didn’t want to go out a loser. Those who watched him after losing a congressional primary in 1990 – I was one of them – know that this is a guy who hates losing a lot more than he likes winning.
This year, Frelinghuysen was in real trouble. His district was not the same as the one his father carried eleven time with ease. The last round of redistricting was not especially kind – he was asked to take on new, more Democratic towns after New Jersey lost a House seat in the new census. NJ-11 has just 10,850 more Republicans than Democrat; that’s down from a 50,189 advantage in 2010. Donald Trump carried the district by one percentage point; John McCain won the old district by nine points, and George W. Bush by sixteen.
Frelinghuysen’s problems weren’t just because someone drew him a bad district. Some of his wounds were self-inflicted. His failure to recognize genuine voter anger for refusing to hold town hall meetings or respond to constituent requests spawned NJ11forChange – the most impressive and effective grass roots organization since Hands Across New Jersey in 1991. Equally as dumb – I say this as an expert in stupid mistakes – was his postscript in a fundraising letter to Saily Avelenda’s employer complaining of her involvement in the rebel group.
As a holder of a safe seat, Frelinghuysen had the opportunity to spend his time governing. He embraced the seniority system and spent twenty years paying his dues on the House Appropriations Committee. Eventually he joined the College of Cardinals – the group of appropriations subcommittee chairs.
In 2017, he became chairman of the full committee – one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill. His moment came at age 71, just as Trump became president. Some critics say that Frelinghuysen never felt comfortable with the inside game needed to get the chairmanship. POLITICO reported that the House leadership had threatened to yank his chairmanship after he voted against the GOP tax bill.
Many political observers – me included – thought that Frelinghuysen was dead man walking. He’s been running for office every two or three years since 1974 and he’s never had a tough general election. Frelinghuysen lost the only two competitive races he’s run in – House primaries in 1982 and 1990. Lots of people thought he wasn’t up to a real campaign.
For many Republicans, the real question was if Frelinghuysen understood that he was in trouble. Apparently, he did.
Frelinghuysen was going to be gone after the 2022 election anyway. Even if he was re-elected, and even if Republicans held the House, he only had four years left as Appropriations Chairman before term limits kicked in. Frelinghuysen wasn’t going to return to the back benches at 75, and Republicans would have been dealing with an open seat in a redistricting year.
Both parties treated his retirement with the respect and dignity he deserved. Regardless of how people felt about Frelinghuysen politically, few questioned his patriotism and ethics.
Now the 11th district race hits the reset button, as pundits will debate whether the new Republican nominee is stronger or weaker than Frelinghuysen would have been. Either way, it’s an entirely new campaign.