NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Galvanizing a group of Northern New Jersey Republicans for midterms, the chair of the Morris County Republican Committee said the word from prominent party members is that their district and a neighbor to the south are key to keeping the House majority.
“Just a little bit of pressure,” chairman Ron DeFilippis joked to the crowd of 30 that gathered on Oct. 25 in Rockaway at the American Legion Post 344.
But the pressure on the 11th District, long considered reliably red, is one that has been building steadily.
“I think there’s a lot more enthusiasm for the Democratic Party than in years past … even at the local level,” said Doug Brookes, a 42-year-old Rockaway resident.
Over the past three years, Democrats in Morris County have boasted that they have picked up more than 20 municipal seats and lost none in the 11th District, which also includes parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties.
“I hate to say it, but it kind of mimics the national arena,” Brookes said.
Beating Back the Tide
For Democrats, the 11th District came into play earlier this year when Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen announced his retirement after two decades holding the seat.
Though six-term New Jersey Assemblyman Jay Webber is vying to hold the office for Republicans, polling by the Cook Political Report shows that Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat and Navy pilot, has the edge.
At the meeting of Republicans in Morris County on Thursday, Deborah Smith portrayed the fight for the 11th district as a last stand against a Democratic shift in Morris County.
“If we can push them back in this election, maybe they won’t come back,” said Smith, who is also running for the local office of freeholder.
After some grumbling about immigration, Smith predicted that, “if Morris County goes Democrat, the state will be a sanctuary state.”
Another concern that has emerged for Rockaway Republicans is keeping everyone on the party line. When Sherrill was endorsed in August by Mike Puzio, a current Republican councilman and candidate for mayor in Rockaway, Puzio said, “the letter that comes after my name is less important to Mikie than the fact that I am a resident of this community.”
Puzio’s endorsement ruffled feathers at the American Legion, where one member even suggested the town apologize to Webber’s campaign.
A Stark Contrast Between Candidates
In Webber’s court, the 46-year-old assemblyman has had high-profile assists from Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway. Sherrill meanwhile won her primary handily and made headlines earlier this year for a fundraising blitz that recently drew $1.87 million from Mike Bloomberg toward an ad campaign.
Calling out the Republican candidate’s record on the environment as an assemblyman, Jeff Tittel, a Democrat in the 11th District who serves as director of the NJ Sierra Club, said, “Webber makes Frelinghuysen look like a tree hugger.”
Webber’s hard-right views on certain social issues and immigration — and his strong association with President Trump, who called him “outstanding” in a tweet — seems to have galvanized some on the left who had not engaged politically in previous years.
“I’m not a particularly political animal,” said Jennifer Anne Moses, a 59-year-old freelance writer who has started canvassing for Sherrill and plans to work a phone bank on Election Day.
“I hate this stuff,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t like knocking on doors, but you have to do something.”
Moses, who has lived in Montclair for 10 years and has three grown children, said the 11th District is right-leaning but that most of the Republicans she knows are “old-school Nixon Republicans” who believe in lower taxes but are not hardliners on social issues like Webber.
“I’ve gotten in plenty of arguments with them in the past … but this time the argument is that they don’t think they have a place in the Republican Party,” she said. “Everything comes back to the filth and rot that is coming out of the White House.”
Webber still has support among Republicans, though, who see him as the heir apparent to Frelinghuysen.
A father of six who has known Webber for years, Brookes said he sees a kindred spirit in the Republican candidate.
“You know, he’s got a big family,” Brookes said. “I personally have a big family, so I know the time and dedication that he does put in to his constituents.”
Last week Webber’s large family faced an overt threat when the campaign received a menacing letter that referred to Webber’s seven children as “unlucky 7.”
Saily Avelenda, executive director of the NJ 11th for Change activist group, meanwhile noted that unaffiliated voters in the district cannot be overlooked.
“There is no way you win a campaign without targeting the unaffiliated voter,” Avelenda said in an interview.
Putting the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans at around 7,000 in the district, Avelenda said roughly 40 percent of the district electorate was unaffiliated or independent in 2016.
Whereas Frelinghuysen won re-election by 19 points in 2016, Avelenda noted that President Trump carried the district by a single point.
“There was a poor ground game in 2016 by many candidates,” she said. “Canvassing is the only thing that brings out votes.”
Earlier this year, Avelenda made national headlines when Congressman Frelinghuysen sent her employer Lakeland Bank a fundraising note saying “one of the ringleaders works at your bank!”
Red May Hold in 7th District
Just south of the 11th, Democrats face tougher sledding in the 7th District, which encompasses parts of Morris, Essex, Somerset, Union and Warren counties.
In 2016, Republican Rep. Leonard Lance won re-election by more than 10 points, and is viewed by many as a moderate. His opponent Tom Malinowski meanwhile is considered a newcomer to local politics, seeking office after working in the Obama administration.
Tittel, the NJ Sierra Club director, is a resident of the 7th District. Downplaying the Republican streak of his compatriots in the 7th, he noted that the district voted for both Hillary Clinton in the presidential election and Kim Guadagno for governor in 2016. “The Republican Party doesn’t represent the people in those districts anymore,” he said. “It is the party of Trump.”
John Flores, who works for NJ 7 Citizens 4 Change, a Democratic-leaning political action committee, said the “Trump effect” may sway a large portion of the unaffiliated and moderate GOP voters to the blue side of the ticket.
In the 2018 primary, Flores noted, turnout among Democrats in the 7th was up nearly 400 percent from 2016, second in the state. Flores said his group is “trying to reach outside the activist bubble,” however, to sway unaffiliated voters and Republicans who may have soured on Trump.
“I think there are good, principled conservative voters who may have pinched their nose in the voting booth in 2016, but they’ve had enough of the insanity,” he said.