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HARDING TWP. – Mikie Sherrill was at a ceremony in the Great Swamp the other day and she thanked the many people who worked to stymie long ago plans of the Port Authority to build an airport there, including the “father of my predecessor.”
That would have been Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen, who like his son, and Sherrill’s predecessor, Rodney,
also represented the district in the House. It was a nice bipartisan and historical touch.
But it also exemplified how the district’s political landscape has changed. Neither Frelinghuysen had all that many Democratic challengers to worry about. But now Sherrill, a Democrat from Montclair, represents a district that seems to be changing month by month.
The state’s latest monthly voter registration figures show that the 11th District, which includes parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties, now has about 7,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Back on Sept. 1, 2018, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 8,000. A switch of 15,000 voters in two years is significant.
And it encapsulates the challenge facing Republican candidate Rosemary Becchi.
Becchi, a tax policy lawyer, actually began her life as a congressional candidate in another district – the 7th. She initially planned to contest Tom Kean Jr. for the Republican nod to take on Democrat Tom Malinowski. But in January, Becchi said she’d run against Sherrill in CD-11 instead.
There was some logic here. There really wasn’t a well-funded GOP candidate in the 11th and the move avoided a Republican primary in the 7th.
Of course, Becchi lives in Millburn, which is not in the 11th District. That ordinarily would be a problem. but in this case it isn’t, because Sherrill’s lives outside the district as well. Montclair is split between two districts and the congresswoman lives in the part of town that’s outside CD-11.
Two candidates running for Congress in a district in which neither resides is a bit odd. At least there’s consistency as neither one could vote for themselves.
Money in the race so far is a bit one-sided. Recent FEC filings show Sherrill with about $3.4 million in cash on hand; Becchi had about $308,000.
Funding aside, Becchi does have a notable accomplishment on her resume – helping to write the 529 College Savings plan that assists families to save money for their children’s college education while a staffer with the Senate Finance Committee.
Most of the national organizations that track House races are pretty confident Sherrill’s going to win. But this district – even with the addition of some Essex County towns after the 2010 Census – was reliably Republican for a long time. This election likely will show if 2018 was an anomaly or the start of a new political reality.
Becchi’s early campaign strategy appears to be to fire hard and fast. While she has been active in the district organizing blood drives and food bank collections, Becchi is also aggressively attacking her opponent.
Recent posts on her Facebook page have said Sherrill has been vacationing much of August, a dubious charge.
Sherrill did take a week-long vacation in early August, but she since has had many public and virtual appearances, including ones on three consecutive days last week.. The Becchi campaign explained its thinking by saying the congresswoman is not in Washington working, That’s technically correct, because the House is not in session. But that in itself hardly means a House member is on vacation.
Becchi’s Facebook page also brings up some of the violence occurring around the nation and tries to link it to Sherrill. Not surprisingly, the president is doing the same thing regarding Joe Biden.
This can be a tough sell – even allowing for the silliness of some political rhetoric. It’s hard to convince the public that a House member from the 11th District of New Jersey is responsible for looting and rioting elsewhere in the country.
There’s no doubt this approach appeals to the Republicans’ conservative base. But this isn’t the Republican primary, and in a district that now has more registered Dems than Republicans, grabbing the middle ground would appear to be key.
Sherrill vowed two years ago not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker and she followed through, voting instead for Cheri Bustos of Illinois.
Sherrill said in a recent conversation that her opposition to Pelosi has not hurt her politically in Congress, noting that she was elected to chair the Environmental Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Pelosi is a villian for many Republicans – just like GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell is for many Democrats.
So Becchi’s social media posts link Sherrill to Pelosi, noting that the congresswoman votes with the speaker virtually all the time. The point here is obvious. Sherrill totally supports Pelosi even if she did not vote for her.
The challenger’s emerging campaign style has not escaped Sherrill’s attention.
“This is the kind of divisive politics that people in our district don ‘t like,” she said.
As for her 20 months in office, Sherrill said she’s been most surprised by the president’s poor response to the ongoing pandemic. She said it seems as if President Trump has no interest in dealing with the problem.
Sherrill, of course, voted with most other Democrats to impeach the president, an effort that not surprisingly failed in the Republican Senate.
She has no regrets, saying she remains convinced that a president “trying to strong-arm another country into manufacturing evidence against his opponent” is grounds for impeachment.