New Jersey to play key role in deciding control of Congress
Every year is an election year in New Jersey, and in even-numbered ones the federal races take center stage – with 2018 shaping up to be far more interesting than most congressional cycles in the state.
New Jersey hasn’t seen more than one congressional seat switch parties in the same election since 1994, but Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale said three Republican seats could flip to the Democrats. Races for another two seats, one held by each party, could also be competitive.
For Democrats to win control of Congress, it would necessitate gaining 24 seats in the House of Representatives. That path would likely include a push here, Hale said.
“I think especially in New Jersey,” said Hale, who worked in Democratic politics before joining academia. “There’s going to be a number of New Jersey Republican congressman who are going to have some pretty significant fights on their hands.”
Congressman Frank LoBiondo is retiring, setting up a competitive race for an open seat in South Jersey’s 2nd District.
Hale said Republican incumbents Rodney Frelinghuysen in the 11th District and Leonard Lance in the 7th District are vulnerable, but that Tom MacArthur appears “surprisingly safer” in the 3rd District – in part if Democrats focus resources on other more likely pickup opportunities.
Lance is among the nearly two dozen House Republicans who represent districts where Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump in 2016, and Trump only won Frelinghuysen’s district by 1 percentage point.
Hale said Republicans in those suburban districts are uneasy with the direction of the national GOP and President Trump.
“New Jersey Republicans are moderate. New Jersey Republicans are not extremists and not ideologues and so they’re going to shy away from that part of the Republican brand,” Hale said.
A second New Jersey district that preferred Trump by 1 percentage point in 2016 was North Jersey’s 5th District, which also elected its first Democrat to the House since the 1930s.
Hale said Josh Gottheimer has had a rather large profile for a freshman in the minority party and believes the national GOP will be more invested in keeping the 7th and 11th District seats than in recapturing the 5th District.
“He’s had a seat at the table with Trump in a meeting or two, and so I think that Gottheimer has shown he can be very, very strong,” Hale said. “And when you have Frelinghuysen and Lance in jeopardy, I think Republicans might go into a protect mode.”
With all the interest in the House races, the state’s U.S. Senate race could become the undercard, even though Incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez enters the year politically wounded.
Menendez still faces the prospect of a retrial on federal corruption charges. However, Democrats quickly lined up behind his re-election bid after he was nearly acquitted in November in a case that ended in a mistrial.
“Menendez is seen by the party machines up and down the state as a fantastic senator,” Hale said. “And he also has the respect of people in the U.S. Senate. Remember, Lindsey Graham and Cory Booker both testified on his behalf.”
An attorney, Michael Starr Hopkins, is exploring a Democratic primary challenge. It’s not yet clear whether an establishment Republican will emerge as a candidate. Businessman Rich Pezzullo has announced that he will run for the GOP nomination.