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Five of New Jersey’s 12 House seats are held by Republicans. This election, two of those seats -- the 7th and the 11th congressional districts -- are key targets by Democrats who hope to flip the House in their favor. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports on the two tight races and the role President Trump could play in their outcome.
It may not look like it, but these quiet neighborhoods are battlegrounds…where the Republican Party's total control of the Congress will be won or lost.
More than 40 percent of all members of the House of Representatives live in suburban areas—and dozens of Republican districts are at risk.
And no state more dramatically demonstrates this than New Jersey—the very symbol of the massive middle-class migration that began after World War II.
JEFF GREENFIELD, MORRISTOWN, NJ:
New Jersey is a deeply blue state. It hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 30 years. It hasn't sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. But five of New Jersey's 12 House Seats are held by Republicans, mostly in the suburbs. And Democrats believe that winning those types of districts in New Jersey and across the country is the key to winning back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Thirty miles west of Manhattan lies New Jersey's 11th Congressional district.
White Collar, some blue collar, a lot of commuters into New York but also people with commutes inside of Morris and Passaic County a little of Essex as well.
That's 46 year-old Assemblyman Jay Webber, the Republican candidate for the district's open House seat.
Taxes is the number one issue on people's minds…
He's holding a press conference at a gas station to protest the state's gasoline taxes..a source of perpetual voter anger.
He's running to replace the retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen, part of a political dynasty that goes back literally to the birth of the American Republic. Here's his father Peter 64 years ago.
REP. PETER FRELINGHUYSEN, 1954: …It has been and I'm sure will continue to be strongly Republican.
The family embodied a moderate Republican Party that dominated much of Jersey politics. The party here has moved rightward in recent years, but Assemblyman Webber says ideology is not the key to this race — jobs and taxes are.
JAY WEBBER, REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS:
I'm focusing on those kitchen table issues that I think unite our party. And that are appealing to blue collar workers– College aged women and men, professionals. Commuters. Those are the issues we try to unite around.
One divisive issue here is the new federal tax law, which has limited deductions for local and state taxes. The law hits residents of high tax states like New Jersey hard. Assemblyman Webber supports it. Here's what he said in a debate this month:
The arrow is pointing up in large part to that tax cut. We should be celebrating it, not looking for the dark lining in the silver cloud that America is enjoying.
MIKIE SHERRILL POLITICAL AD:
…Before the Navy let me fly one of these, I had to pass alot of tests.
His opponent, 46 year old Mikie Sherrill, is a Navy helicopter pilot turned federal prosecutor. She argues that the new tax law has left New Jerseyans worse off.
MIKIE SHERRILL, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS:
What's important to people here in New Jersey is that everything coming out of this Congress has been bad for our state. So this tax plan is worse for our state than any other state. No member of the North Jersey delegation including Representative Frelinghuysen voted in favor of this tax plan. And it's striking that Assemblyman Webber supports it.
But while the talk is of taxes and other local issues, something very different is shaping the battle for the suburbs.
JEFF GREENFIELD, WESTFIELD, NJ:
With all 435 House districts at stake this fall, it is tempting to echo the old political cliche that all politics is local. This year that is particularly not true. From Westfield, New Jersey to the coast of California, suburban race after suburban race are being shaped by the same factor.
We're looking at districts that normally go Republican where the Democratic challenger particularly in three districts is making a very, very conservative run for a victory.
Is there a unified field theory explanation for this?
Yes. His name is Donald Trump.
Michael Aron, chief political correspondent for NJTV, has been covering the state's politics for 40 years. He moderated a debate last week between Sherrill and Webber. Aron says that voters sometimes make congressional decisions based on who is in the White House.
I think that they're voting on the candidates themselves and on issues but they understand that this is going to be interpreted as a victory or a defeat for Donald Trump. Republicans are carrying his baggage on Election night.
That applies in districts from Kansas to Iowa to Utah to as many as half a dozen in California…The challenge for Republicans is that in suburbia, Trump's approval rating is well below his national average, especially among women. One survey last month showed 65% of women living in small cities and suburbs disapprove of Trump. Assemblyman Webber deals with this dilemma this way:
I agree with the president when I think he's right I'll disagree with him when he's wrong and I'll always put the district first. And I think that's what people around here want.
And, like GOP candidates across the country, Webber–in this political ad– is trying to paint his opponent as an ally of a favorite Republican target: Nancy Pelosi.
JAY WEBBER POLITICAL AD:
Mikie Sherrill: "I think she's been the most effective Speaker in the House we've seen decades. I applaud the legislation she's been able to pass"
Here's what Sherrill told us about Pelosi.
I said I won't be supporting Speaker Pelosi for leadership. But I think that they're really more concerned about is my proven record of putting people first in this country before partisan politics.
Just to the West and South, Jersey's 7th district offers another stark test of the Trump effect on traditionally Republican turf. Sixty-six year old Representative Leonard Lance has been a Republican fixture here for more than forty years; from the county court to the state assembly to the state senate, to ten years in the US House; he won two years ago by 11 points while Clinton edged out Trump by a point. But President Trump's low ratings here pose a clear threat to Lance, who, as a member of the Congressional Problem Solvers caucus,is clearly in the mode of the moderate Republican past.
JEFF GREENFIELD :
One of the main themes of the Democrats is we need one of these two houses to hold the president to account given his relative unpopularity here. I'm asking is whether that's something you have to deal with and overcome to succeed in November.
REP. LEONARD LANCE, (R) NEW JERSEY: I think the way forward is through bipartisan cooperation in whichever party controls the new house. I think it will be by a relatively small margin– smaller than the current Republican margin — and therefore I believe that centrists will have greater influence.
He has friends on both sides of the aisle. He voted against the tax bill, he voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Fifty three year old Tom Malinowski has spent his public life on a very different stage from Lance's; he's been immersed in diplomacy, and the world of human rights, as an advocate and high state department official under President Obama. He returned to his native New Jersey just a year and a half ago, to launch a campaign in which he says that Trump's views now define the Republican Party.
There is a blowback against extremism. There's a blowback against the perception that the- the party of Reagan is now a party that opposes free trade, that opposes immigration, that attacks the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that is dividing this country in ways that middle of the road voters in districts like this don't– don't- aren't comfortable with.
As do so many threatened incumbents, Republican Lance argues that Malinowski would be part of an increasingly left wing Democratic Party.
REP. LEONARD LANCE:
Yes I believe the Democratic Party is moving far to the left and in this race in north central New Jersey my opponent is extremely liberal on the major issues. And for example he has not indicated that he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker although many more centrist Democrats have indicated that.
LEONARD LANCE POLITICAL AD, VOICEOVER:
"…Translation: Far Left Liberal"
An ad makes the point with a striking lack of subtlety.
LEONARD LANCE POLITICAL AD:
Tom Malinowski "…I'm a lifelong progressive Democrat"AD VOICEOVER: Higher taxes, higher healthcare costs, Less Freedom.
Unlike Mikie Sherrill, Malinowski is noncommittal about Nancy Pelosi as speaker. But he is clear about why this year, there's a national imperative to end one party control of the entire federal government.
I've worked with Republicans and Democrats all my life but where I do become partisan and this is just from observation of the Congress in the last few years. I argue that the only way to get bipartisanship in the Congress right now is a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
While Republicans are hoping the fight over Brett Kavanaugh has energized their base in "red" states, it is much less likely to help GOP candidates like Webber and Lance, where more moderate voters hold the key to success. It's another reason why the political world will be paying close attention to the Garden State on Election Night; should these Republican districts flip, it's a powerful clue that the House of Representatives will as well.
Watch the Full Episode
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
Pavni Mittal is a reporter, producer and contributor at PBS NewsHour Weekend covering national and international affairs. A journalist for over a decade, she has reported extensively in India and the U.S., and holds a Master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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