The Republican incumbent is Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a 12-term member whose family came to New Jersey 300 years ago. His ancestors have been U.S. senators and his father also represented north-central New Jersey in the House. Politically, the area has been reliably Republican for decades and Frelinghuysen wins there by wide margins.
President Donald Trump narrowly carried the congressional district centered on Morris County, New Jersey’s 11th, leaving Republicans confident of Frelinghuysen’s re-election prospects in a place dominated by affluent, moderate voters.
That’s now much less certain. The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, the leading analyst of congressional contests, last week moved the 11th district from “likely Republican” to “toss-up.” This reflected a strong anti-Trump tide – few believe he would win the district today – generating an energized grass-roots movement, “NJ 11th for Change,” and a probable challenge from a much stronger Democrat than the incumbent has faced before.
She is Mikie Sherrill, a 45-year-old former Navy pilot, federal prosecutor and suburban mother of four. (There are other aspirants, but the smart money in Washington and New Jersey says that she’s the one who can defeat the Republican.)
“Frelinghuysen looks unprepared for his first real race in decades,” Wasserman wrote.
The incumbent seems rattled, not much enjoying the powerful Appropriations Committee perch he waited so long to ascend. He voted to replace the Affordable Care Act after indicating he wouldn’t. He has sent mixed messages on immigration and tries to ignore Trump, an impossible act, though he did criticize the president for defending alt-right racists and neo-Nazis after violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
But the diciest problem for Frelinghuysen may be his have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too maneuver on the tax cut that was passed by the House last week. He was for it … before he was against it.
The veteran lawmaker voted for the budget resolution that cleared the way for a vote on the tax bill. Then he voted against the tax legislation itself, criticizing it for limiting deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest, provisions that would be costly to a lot of his constituents in a high-tax state with many expensive homes.
Sherrill hammers him on this issue. “He made this bad tax bill possible,” she said in an interview in the district, noting that Frelinghuysen “was the only New Jersey Republican to vote for the budget.”
Sherrill said that Trump and the Republican agenda is what got her into politics. “Trump was attacking the institutions and values I fought for,” she said, mentioning “prisoners of war, gold-star fathers, judges, women.”
The politically progressive Sherrill misses few opportunities to remind voters of her Navy bona fides. (Frelinghuysen is also a veteran, one of those rare blue-bloods who served in the Army during Vietnam.) At a Morris Plains Democratic meeting last week, she made repeated military references and analogies, declaring, “I think a lot of people feel comfortable voting for veterans.”
Nationally, Democrats figure it’s harder for Trump and his allies to paint veterans as soft or weak. Already, there are more than 50 of them running as Democratic House challengers, including 10 women. Sherrill has raised $744,000 and has over 100 volunteers.
The district is heavy with college-educated white voters, many of them Republicans who are turned off by Trump. Frelinghuysen has irked some of them by ignoring the “NJ 11 for Change” group and by refusing to hold town halls. Sherrill is the beneficiary.
“People are upset with Frelinghuysen for talking one way and voting the other way with Trump,” said Lee Connor, a freelance writer from Morris Plains. “Mikie seems to inspire.”
Sherrill’s inexperience on the stump sometimes shows. At the Morris Plains meeting, she awkwardly ducked a question about whether she supported government-provided health insurance and gave vague answers to queries about national security.
She hasn’t had to weather Republican attacks yet, but expects to be linked to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (She brushes off that that probable line of criticism: “Paul Ryan is more of a concern here than Nancy Pelosi,” she said.) Some voters might also prove receptive to Frelinghuysen’s inevitable argument that voters shouldn’t exchange the chairman of one of the most powerful House committees for a rookie.
But Wasserman thinks the political climate and Sherrill’s profile are good for Democrats.
“Her resume,” said Wasserman, “may be difficult to attack.”