Rick Santorum, the former Republican Pennsylvania senator now serving as a CNN commentator, had an interesting, if not, ominous observation after Tuesday night’s debate. He said it doesn’t bode well for Republican candidates across the land.
Santorum wasn’t exactly jovial about that; he was just giving an opinion.
As we know, some people only vote in presidential years, and without strong passion for one side or the other, they’re apt to simply support candidates aligned with their presidential choice. Santorum’s obvious point was that President Trump’s somewhat unhinged performance Tuesday night is unlikely to swing any neutral voters – assuming they do actually exist – his way.
That should be of particular concern to Republicans running in New Jersey, where the registration rolls already put them at a disadvantage.
Coping with this requires a balancing act that might be impossible.
One way to illustrate this is to look back to 2018 and to focus on Morris County and its environs – well established Republican territory. At least up until then.
The two incumbent GOP House members in the relevant districts – 7 and 11 – were respectively Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen. Both came from traditional political families and both clearly saw public service as an obligation. The Frelinghuysens, after all, have been active in United States politics since the beginning of the United States. Their genteel and civil approach to service is totally foreign to the style of Donald Trump and his most strident followers.
This was an obvious problem in 2018.
Lance tried – as much as a Republican could – to disassociate himself from Trump. He lost, albeit not by much, to Tom Malinowski.
Over in CD-11. Frelinghuysen took a different path. Clearly unhappy and perhaps unwilling to publicly defend Trump, Frelinghuysen refused to hold public meetings with constituents, opted against seeking reelection and then essentially dropped out of sight.
Of relevance here is that the Republican who ran for the seat, Jay Webber, supported much of what the president was doing. He lost to Mikie Sherrill by a margin greater than Lance.
As we come to 2020, Republicans running in these and other competitive districts have no choice but to appeal to Trump’s base. That’s certainly happening, sometimes in a big way.
In CD-2, Jeff Van Drew was elected as a Democrat and switched parties, winning a spot on stage at the president’s Wildwood rally earlier this year. In CD-3, Republican David Richter, who wants to oust Andy Kim, has been endorsed by Trump. And moving back to CD-11, Republican Rosemary Becchi has been a fixture at Trump rallies in the district.
All this is understandable. The spirit and passion at Trump rallies is certainly infectious.
You have the waving of Trump flags, supporters attired in patriotic clothing and oftentimes, rock music to keep spirits high.
Yet on the other hand, you have Santorum’s comments, if not warning. The impact of Trump rallies go only so far. Remember that his average approval rating has never topped 50 percent.
The debate followed by two days the NYT report about the president hardly paying any federal income taxes.
It does make you think back to the New Jersey Republican world of Lance,
Frelinghuysen and also Thomas H. Kean Sr., the father of the GOP candidate in CD-7.
Like the Frelinghuysens, the Kean family involvement in public life seemed to abide by the biblical verse of “From whom much is given, much is expected.”
These individuals paid taxes, and you also get the feeling each of them would have found a way to condemn neo-Nazi groups if asked about it publicly.
Mr. Trump hears a different drummer.
And that’s a big challenge for all Republican candidates in New Jersey.