By Jim Ellis
Feb. 8, 2018 — House Appropriations Committee chairman and New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s (R-Morristown) surprise retirement announcement last week was initially met with cheers from the national Democratic establishment and local rank and file. As an open seat, they believed their conversion chances were growing even stronger. But, it appears that local Republican leaders are very quickly working to build support for a contender who may well become a consensus GOP candidate as soon as next week.When Rep. Frelinghuysen decided not to seek a 13th term, state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) immediately indicated that he would become a congressional candidate. Almost as quickly, neighboring Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Randolph) followed suit. But, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Parsippany), who also represents the 26th Legislative District (as does Sen. Pennacchio), is now coming to the forefront as the man to beat in the GOP primary.
Upon Assemblyman Webber entering the race — who is a former New Jersey Republican Party chairman — Sen. Pennacchio quickly bowed out; Bucco also is sending signals that he, too, will soon exit. This leaves only attorney and first-time candidate Martin Hewitt remaining as an opponent for Webber.
Democrats were targeting Frelinghuysen, pointing to the fact that President Trump carried only the 11th District — originally drawn to be a decidedly Republican seat — by just a single percentage point, 49-48 percent. The district has been trending a bit more Democratic since it was first drawn. Compare the Trump numbers to both Mitt Romney and John McCain’s identical 52-47 percent showings. (The McCain numbers were re-configured into the territory comprising the current 11th CD, not the one existing in 2008. The previous seat was four points more Republican.)
On the other hand, President Trump did win the district even though he lost the state by a considerable 55-41 percent spread. Therefore, while the electorate may be trending a bit more Democratic than its long history would suggest, NJ-11 is still more winnable than not for most Republican candidates.
Rep. Frelinghuysen was first elected in 1994. His father, Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., also represented northern New Jersey in the House, for 11 terms beginning in 1953. During his tenure in Congress, the current Rep. Frelinghuysen has averaged 65.3 percent of the vote over his 12 successful general election campaigns, though his 58 percent finish in 2016 was his career low water mark. Even so, these are strong numbers for any congressional incumbent over a long career.
The Democrats have four announced candidates, and all were running before Frelinghuysen decided not to seek re-election. But, two stand out: attorney and Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill, a first-time candidate, has already raised $1.23 million for her campaign, and has over $820,000 in the bank; businesswoman Tamara Harris, another first-time candidate, has obtained more than $566,000 with over $455,000 cash-on-hand, but $317,000 of this came from the candidate either through contribution or loan. Conversely, Sherrill contributed only $1,800 to her effort.
Though the fundraising is impressive, if both candidates stay in the race to fight in a Democratic primary, most of these resources will be spent by the time the general election begins in June.
The 11th District is a compact northern New Jersey seat, of which half the population resides in Morris County. The remaining constituency comes from parts of Essex, Passaic, and Sussex Counties. The district is 71 percent non-Hispanic white, with an 11.2 percent Hispanic population, a 10.8 percent Asian base, and an African American segment of just 3.2 percent. The last Democrat to represent this region was Rep. Joseph Minish who served from 1963 to 1985.
With the emergence of Assemblyman Webber as the potential consensus Republican candidate, the GOP is already in much better political shape than when Frelinghuysen made his retirement announcement. The race must be considered a toss-up in the early going, but the campaign has substantially changed in just its first week as an open seat contest.