MORRISTOWN- On Memorial Day morning in Morristown there was little street traffic other than veterans headed to commemorations and millennials with yoga mats. A couple of coffee places were open, but all of the other stores were closed.
There was no hint that this capital of a reliably Republican county, in the heart of the state’s 11th Congressional District, could be an epicenter for what Democrats hope will be a mid-term earthquake that could help upend GOP control of Congress.
But if a recent Monmouth University Poll is anywhere near accurate, that’s exactly what could happen. According to Monmouth’s survey on House preferences for the mid-term election Democrats have a 19-point advantage over Republicans “in the generic House ballot among all registered voters in the Garden State.”
“This is pretty astounding. Not only are New Jersey Democrats doing better on the generic House ballot statewide, but the shift is coming almost entirely from districts currently held by the GOP,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “If these results hold, we could be down to just one or two – or maybe even zero – Republican members in the state congressional delegation after November.”
Murray attributes the radically altered landscape to the state’s dissatisfaction with President Trump’s job performance which state residents disapprove of by an overwhelming margin, 61 percent to 34 percent. Even in the five remaining Congressional Districts currently held by Republicans, like the 11th, those that disapprove of Trump outnumber those that support him by a ten point spread, 53 percent to 43 percent.
But the shift in the 11th’s politics is not just about the recent aversion to the Trump presidency. In 1990 it was 92.5 percent white. By 2016 it was just 76.8 percent white, with both the Asian and Hispanic populations more than doubling over those 26 years. Incredibly, Governor Phil Murphy actually won in a handful of Morris County towns that have always been reliably Republican.
In Morristown on Memorial Day morning the front door was open and the lights were on in the back room of the Morris County Democratic Headquarters where the windows were covered with Mikie Sherrill for Congress signs. The lone campaign worker quickly volunteered that he could not speak on behalf of the Sherrill campaign but explained the campaign was leasing the county headquarters.
Down the street the door to the Morris County Republican Headquarters were locked and the storefront dark with retro-window signage that proudly proclaimed Morris County’s very own Chris Christie was still New Jersey’s Governor.
There was a bumper sticker for Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who announced back in January that he was retiring rather than face what was shaping up to be the toughest race of his tenure. By January the 12-term Congressman, whose father served in Congress before him, already faced a field that included three Democrats who had out raised him in the third quarter, according to Politico.
While the Trump ascendancy may have fired up a portion of the GOP’s base nationally, Trump only won the 11th CD by just one percent, a high watermark for Democrats in a district mostly made up of a a county that had always been a reliably Republican bastion since Lyndon Johnson beat Senator Barry Goldwater by 20,000 votes in 1964.
The prospect of an open seat House seat in the 11th Congressional District, which includes three quarters of Morris County, but includes portions of Passaic, Essex and Sussex, drew five Republican candidates and four Democratic contenders.
Even before Frelinghuysen’s exit provided a once in a generation opportunity to flip a Congressional seat, Montclair resident Mikie Sherrill announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination. The mother of four was both a Naval Academy and Georgetown law School graduate. A Navy helicopter pilot and a former federal prosecutor, Sherrill also has an expertise on Russia and proved to be a prolific fundraiser for a contest that is still an uphill climb.
Sherrill’s seemingly bullet proof resume and compelling life story helped her coalesce, not just support from the Democrats nationally, but the endorsements from all of the regular Democratic organizations in the four counties that the 11th encompasses.
But even as the Democratic Party tries to pull itself together, it still displays fissures from the bitter battle between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And in the final days of the primary in races in New Jersey, and across the country, there’s a mirroring of what happened in the Republican Party when the Tea Party started pressuring candidates to out ‘right wing’ each other. But in the case of the Democrats, it’s become a question who is the most deep blue progressive or who hates Trump most.
In the homestretch of the 11th’s primary campaign, one of Sherrill’s Democratic opponents, Tamara Harris, has broken out of the Democratic field with a very well financed TV and mass mailing campaign that is running to Sherrill’s left.
Harris, who got both her under graduate and master in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh, was with Prudential’s Asset Management Group and worked in international finance in the Hong Kong offices of Citigroup and Deutsche Bank. The mother of two daughters, she left finance to do work in the social service arena. She has raised more than $1 million to fund merit and need based college scholarships for children who live in Essex County.
Harris, an African-American, won the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus’s Political Action Committee and has invested $300,000 of her own money into the campaign.
Harris, from Verona, is proclaiming she is a “no-nonsense progressive” whose top priorities include impeaching the President. While in a piece of Sherrill’s literature picked up at her Morristown storefront there is no mention of President Trump. Harris’s latest mailer depicts the foot of a woman in a spiked blue heel using that heel to shatter the class on a framed picture of the President.
“The Harris strategy of running to the left and running on impeachment is mirrored around the country in Democratic primaries,” said Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Harris wants to take advantage of emotions running hot. Sherrill has her eye on the general election. She wants to be the calm adult in the room who will not scare off moderate Republicans.”
But Woolley says Sherrill’s earlier entry into the race and her cultivation of the party establishment appears to have paid off. “I just got my sample ballot. In Morris County a Democratic primary voter will need a divining rod to find Tamara Harris,” he said. “ Sherrill got the pole position, two car lengths ahead of the other four contenders. Harris is in ballot-Siberia.”
“This is one of those elections that have been targeted by Democrats as one of the 25 they need to pick off where the incumbent has retired,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at CUNY’s Baruch College and Pompton Plains resident. “This feels like a national election. It’s a referendum.”