It’s not quite her Super Bowl (those events only come in November), but for political scientists and political junkies like Brigid Callahan Harrison, Tuesday’s night primary elections not only brought some interesting results but foreshadowed an exciting next six months to the general election.
“I think this is going to be one of our busier years,” the esteemed professor of political science and law at Montclair State University said. “All eyes are on New Jersey because of these House races, which have the potential to turn the tide of majority party control in the House.
“We got to this position because Republican incumbents decided to throw in the towel. In my view, if Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.) decided to stay in, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They walked away — along with many of their colleagues, including the Speaker of the House — and are essentially abdicating power, which is pretty astounding when you have the control of the Legislature and a sitting president. These are supposed to be the fun times.”
We asked Harrison for six takeaways:
ROI-NJ: You mentioned the 11th District, where Frelinghuysen is retiring. Isn’t he retiring because he saw he was going to lose his seat?
Brigid Harrison: He made that calculation very early on, but it wasn’t guaranteed. The district is gerrymandered to be a Republican district, and certainly he would have been targeted if he were an incumbent, but I think it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have been targeted in the way it is now that it’s an open seat. You have all these House retirements throughout the country: Is the national Democratic Committee going to throw in a ton of money trying to unseat an incumbent, which is an uphill proposition, or would they be spending that money where there’s an open seat?
ROI: So, tell us about the race to succeed him. The Democrats picked Mikie Sherrill; the Republicans went with Jay Webber.
BH: This will be a much-watched race across the country, partly because Mikie Sherrill’s narrative is a very attractive one. I think, nationally, Democrats are looking to attract candidates like Ms. Sherrill and attract voters who would be likely supporters of hers. She’s a moderate, and her military background obviously holds some appeal to Republicans. She’s the kind of candidate that you want running in these competitive districts where swing voters are going to determine the outcome.
Webber has name recognition, he has a network and he has been elected in a proportion of the district. I think one of the problems was that he wasn’t able to attract an enormous amount of money in the primary, which is one of the litmus tests. And I think Sherril will be able to paint his voting record in the Legislature as out-of-step with the district. Frelinghuysen, up until Trump was in office, was a very moderate member of the House.
I don’t want to insult Jay Webber, but the fact that he is the nominee in the 11th is evidence of Chris Christie’s legacy in the fact that there is no Republican bench. These seats were gerrymandered. The Republicans won the mapmaking contest in 2012 and they got what they wanted, an even distribution of House seats. By November, my bet is they will have managed to lose three of them. I believe part of that responsibility rests on Chris Christie’s shoulders because they should have had go-to candidates.
ROI: So, does the mean the Democrats have a chance to flip all five Republican House seats from New Jersey?
BH: That’s not going to happen. My prediction is the Democrats maintain the 5th (Josh Gottheimer) and flip the two open, the 2nd and the 11th. My bet is that Tom MacArthur (3rd), Chris Smith (4th) and Leonard Lance (7th) hold onto their seats.
ROI: Speaking of holding seats. The most surprise result may have been sitting U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez getting only 62 percent of the vote against a relatively unknown opponent, Lisa McCormick. Does this mean Menendez is ripe to be picked off in the general election?
BH: There’s no denying that it’s surprising, but I would caution about reading too much into this. On the one hand, you had Republican candidate Bob Hugin using much of the $10 million he lent his campaign beating up Menendez. I think between the impact of the ads and the fact that you had these contested primaries in many of these Democratic districts that brought out both progressive and new voters — not your typical party voters who are going to toe the line — were a key.
Sure, the vote share is a bit surprising, but I still think it’s a function of who came out in these primaries and the amount of money that was spent against him. Now, moving forward, the reality is that Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost a 2-1 margin in the state. You’re going to have the rather formidable party machines, which have been unflinching in their support of Menendez, pulling out all the stops to get him re-elected because there is the recognition that one senator is incredibly important.
The other part is that Hugin is not the perfect GOP candidate. And there have been allegations of price-gouging. Once the general election campaign begins, the national Democratic senatorial campaign committee is going to put his background in the spotlight.
ROI: Speaking of background, many candidates – including Sherrill and Hugin – have played up their military service. How much impact does that have?
BH: It depends on the race. It matters for outsider candidates because it brings a certain level of legitimacy and respect that the voters kind of use as one of the filters. If this person served in the military, we know that they have a certain set of standards of values, professionalism and love of country. Voters do use that as kind of a shorthand. For Democratic candidates running in Republican districts, like Sherrill, it’s an aspect of their personal narrative that makes them more appealing to Republicans.
ROI: OK, give us something that surprised someone such as yourself who sees results differently than the average person.
BH: The most surprising thing I saw were the results of the 2nd Congressional District. The Republican party-backed candidate, Hirsh Singh, lost, and a political activist who has a radio show, Seth Grossman, won. He won off party line, which is really astounding. The reason we can predict the outcomes in the 11th and the 7th and 2nd on the Democratic side is because party matters.
The 2nd is comprised of Atlantic, which is the lion’s share, Cape May and very small parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties. Cape May is one of the most solidly Republican counties in the state. The fact an off-line candidate could win there is a testimony to a weakness of the Republican Party in what probably should be a very strong area.