National News

Democrats Gain Spots to Battle for Crucial House Seats in New Jersey

Posted June 5, 2018 10:33 p.m. EDT

VERONA, N.J. — A former Navy pilot, a veteran White House national security adviser and a conservative gun rights advocate won Democratic nominations on Tuesday to represent battleground congressional districts in New Jersey, officially earning their spot on the front lines in a state that could determine control of the House.

In perhaps the most closely watched contest, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, won the Democratic nomination in the 11th District, The Associated Press reported, where Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, is retiring from a seat that a Democrat has not held since the 1980s. Sherrill became the latest woman to prevail in a nationwide wave of female candidacies and will now continue a nearly 18-month effort to replace Frelinghuysen with a Democrat in a district where President Donald Trump’s victory has spawned intense activism.

“We made New Jersey’s 11th district the center of a national movement for new leadership,” Sherrill told supporters at a victory rally. “Change is led by the people of New Jersey.”

Sherrill, who raised nearly $2.4 million even before the primary, will face Jay Webber, a state assemblyman, in the general election.

In the contest for the Senate in New Jersey, the Democratic incumbent, Robert Menendez, won his primary, the AP reported, and will face Bob Hugin, a pharmaceutical executive who easily won the Republican nomination.

While the day’s political focus remained largely on California and its crowded congressional primaries, party leaders are hoping to flip as many as four of the five Republican-held districts in New Jersey.

New Jersey was one of seven states besides California where voters were choosing candidates on the busiest primary day of the year, one that will determine candidates for crucial races in the fall. Among the other closely watched races was the one for senator in Montana, where Republicans were nominating a candidate to oppose Jon Tester, a Democrat who has been targeted by Trump.

On the House side, so important are the races in New Jersey that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made endorsements in four of the primaries to help clear the field for candidates they believed had broad enough appeal to win over the state’s many unaffiliated voters in the fall.

In the southern region of the state, where Rep. Frank LoBiondo is leaving his seat in the 2nd Congressional District, Jeff Van Drew, a state senator, won the Democratic primary, the AP reported. Van Drew, a conservative Democrat with a pro-gun record who voted against same-sex marriage in 2012, nonetheless won the backing of powerful South Jersey Democrats early on and was able to fend off a challenge from some progressive candidates.

In the 3rd Congressional District, Andy Kim, a former White House national security official who ran uncontested in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, faces perhaps the steepest climb in the state’s key races this November: a general election contest against Rep. Tom MacArthur, a wealthy incumbent in a firmly red district that Trump won handily in 2016.

As many other New Jersey Republicans have distanced themselves from the administration, voting against the tax law and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, MacArthur has been a loyal supporter, potentially alienating more centrist voters who have grown wary of the president. Atop the ticket in New Jersey was Menendez, who, despite having weathered a lengthy corruption trial and receiving a blistering admonishment from the Senate Ethics committee, faced a little known challenger in the primary.

The general election promises to be hard-fought and potentially ugly. Both candidates have sizable war chests, and both come with vulnerabilities that make them ripe for partisan attack. Menendez faced corruption charges in a case that ended in a mistrial last year, and Hugin’s drug company Celgene paid $280 million in fines for inappropriately marketing its cancer drugs.

In other states, the primary contest for Tester’s Montana seat is a pivotal race for Republicans hoping to retain or build upon their slim majority in the Senate. Matt Rosendale, the state auditor, has been the front-runner for the Republican nomination in a state Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

The president has taken particular interest in the race — and in savaging Tester on Twitter and elsewhere — ever since the senator helped to derail the nomination of Trump’s personal physician, Ronny L. Jackson, to be his secretary of veterans affairs.

In Alabama on Tuesday, it was a Republican who hoped to survive running afoul of Trump. Rep. Martha Roby was trying to keep her seat after withdrawing support for Trump in 2016 following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he boasted of sexually assaulting women.

Though Roby has taken care to project loyalty to the White House since Trump’s election, she had attracted a spirited challenge from several competitors, who hope to force her into a runoff by keeping her shy of 50 percent of the vote. The field included Bobby Bright, a former mayor of Montgomery, and Rich Hobson, a longtime aide to Roy Moore, the former judge who lost a Senate election last year after being accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

Regardless of which Republican is on the ballot for this deep-red district in November, the seat is highly unlikely to fall into Democratic hands.

The same cannot be said for competitive races in Iowa — which also had its primary on Tuesday — where two Republicans in the House, Rod Blum and David Young, are expected to face tough tests in their re-election bids this fall.

Iowa Democrats are also working to knock off Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, though the fight to oppose her recently devolved into scandal. A Democratic state senator running in the primary, Nate Boulton, suspended his campaign after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. Entering Tuesday’s primary, the front-runner to face Reynolds was Fred Hubbell, a business executive and longtime Democratic donor. But if no candidate cleared the 35 percent vote threshold necessary to win the nomination outright, Democrats would have to choose their nominee at a convention.

In New Mexico, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, prevailed in the Democratic primary for governor. If elected, she would be the first Latina Democratic governor in the United States, replacing Gov. Susana Martinez, a term-limited Republican who is also Latina. Steve Pearce, a conservative Republican congressman, won his party’s nomination.

The race to replace Lujan Grisham in the House included Deb Haaland, who was campaigning to be the first Native American woman in Congress. Haaland, a former state Democratic Party chairwoman, has far outpaced her rivals in fundraising for a seat that is expected to remain blue.

Among the other states voting Tuesday were South Dakota, where nominees for governor were being chosen, and Mississippi, which held its primaries for a Senate seat occupied by Roger Wicker, a Republican who won his primary Tuesday night and is expected to be re-elected without major incident.

But Democratic leaders have trained their attention most intensely on to Republican-held House seats in blue states like New Jersey.

In the 7th District along the western part of New Jersey, Rep. Leonard Lance easily defeated two challengers Tuesday to win the Republican primary, and is expected to face his first tough general election in a decade for a seat that has been held by Republicans since 1981. His opponent will be Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state, who had raised more than $1.2 million in his effort to capture the Democratic nomination.

Part of the intense focus on seats in New Jersey involves the unpopularity of Trump and his policies. The administration’s early signature accomplishments, most notably the overhaul of the tax system, took aim at high-tax states like New Jersey. And the plan to open offshore drilling off the Atlantic Coast drew widespread condemnation up and down the Jersey Shore, a cherished resource and tourism destination.