Drilling Down on the Dems’ Jockeying in CD7

BASKING RIDGE – Charles “Chip” Robinson, the chairman of the Morris County Democratic Committee, says there was a time when he hardly talked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now he talks to the campaign arm of the national Democratic Committee all the time.

That aptly symbolizes the apparent rising fortunes for Democrats in what have been solidly Republican congressional districts in central and western New Jersey.

Last week, an overflow crowd showed up for a campaign forum in Morris County with six candidates (five of whom were Democrats) seeking to oust Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, in the 11th District. Last night,  an even larger crowd packed a church in Basking Ridge for a similar campaign forum for the six Democratic candidates vying for a shot at incumbent Leonard Lance in the 7th District. The districts border each other and cover all or parts of Morris, Passaic, Essex, Sussex, Somerset, Union, Hunterdon and Warren counties. .

All this is heady stuff for Democrats. There have been times not all that long ago when party leaders scrambled to find congressional candidates days before the filing deadline. Now, candidates are surfacing months in advance.

“Look at this room,” Tom Malinowski, one of the candidates, said during Wednesday night’s forum at the jam-packed St. Mark’s Evangelical Church.  Motivation, he said, is definitely happening.

That’s a valid point. Yet cynics may point out an obvious fact. The primary is not until June and the 2018 mid-term elections are still 11-months away. A lot can change politically over time.

With the challenge of continuing to motivate voters, many of the questions had more to do with strategy as opposed to issues. That made sense.  The specter of Donald Trump in the White House has Democrats of all stripes seemingly more united than they’ve been in a long time. Small disagreements on issues now seem not very important  Some may be more, or less, liberal than others, but who cares? The goal is to oppose Trump and his minions on all fronts..

For example, the six candidates were all asked what their top three issues were. Other than Malinowski, the candidates were Peter Jacob, who ran against Lance last year, Goutam Jois, Lisa Mandelblatt, Scott Salmon and Linda Weber (pictured). Demonstrating the Democrats’ new-found unity, all candidates said they would support and even campaign for whoever wins the primary.

Just about all agreed that health care is a “right,” and that some sort of “Medicare for all” plan needs to be explored. They pledged to support public education and to uphold environmental regulations now under attack by the Trump administration. Most also said they wanted to overturn or nullify the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has given rise to so-called super Political Action Committees. That aim, however, may be beyond the scope of the House of Representatives, which does not confirm judges.

Malinowski struck the most rhetorical chord in respect to the Alabama Senate campaign of Roy Moore, saying he wanted to support basic American values in contrast to the president’s support for “a racist pedophile.”

All this was warmly received by a partisan crowd, but how does a Democrat beat Lance?  One question submitted by an audience member said many people in the district have known “Lenny” for a long time and like him. How do you combat that?

One candidate, Jois, said he would talk about American “values under attack.”

Malinowski said people must be told that Lance no longer has their backs.

Candidate Mandelblatt noted that Lance is “always there when you don’t need him,” By this, she meant that Lance may have voted against a pending tax cut bill in Congress that would hurt New Jersey, but he only did so when the bill was destined to pass the GOP-controlled House. Her point is simple to see: Lance is afraid to buck the GOP establishment,

Another candidate, Weber, said she would rely on the fact, “There are enough people (in the district) who don’t like the direction our country is going.”  Candidate Salmon seemed to agree, noting that, “I know what people in this district need.”

That still presents the challenge of energizing voters who may not be accustomed to taking part in a mid-term election. And more importantly, getting through to voters. It seems clear that the Democrats’ task is convincing voters that the moderate Lance they have known is no longer around. Democrats in the 11th face the same challenge in regard to Frelinghuysen..

Most of the candidates at last night’s forum shied away from detailing how much money they plan to spend. That, obviously, will be crucial.

As is par for the course with just about any election, the candidates talked about energizing the “grass roots,” through small-money donations and meeting small groups of people. Jacob may have an advantage in that regard, given the fact he ran in the district last year and got 43 percent of the vote.

The grass roots can be helpful, but make no mistake, this is a race for Congress, not an election for the school board. Visiting and campaigning in every town – as all the candidates vowed to do – is a worthy goal.

But as was pointed out more than once at the forum, there are 75 towns in the district. Good luck.

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