The race in South Jersey’s third congressional district is heating up this month with two key developments.
First, two weeks ago, the Republican hopeful and businessman Tom MacArthur found himself happily receiving an endorsement from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, a 20,000 member labor union with strong ties to South Jersey’s Democratic party. It’s the second major labor endorsement MacArthur has received in CD3, the first being the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
The second development came just yesterday, with the news that Mike Muller, a South Jersey political operative with extensive fieldwork experience in districts like CD3 and CD7 , is stepping in to assist Democratic contender and Burlington County freeholder Aimee Belgard with what some see as a lukewarm campaign. Muller was hired by the Democratic State Committee as a liaison to the Democrat’s campaign, and will serve in a communications role.
Both developments have drawn the interest of political observers in the state not just for their potential in changing the dynamics of the race itself — the labor endorsements for MacArthur and Muller for Belgard — but for the light they shine on the political calculations going on behind the scenes, among South Jersey Democrats and Republicans wagering how much to throw into the contest and where.
On the one hand, Muller’s hiring represents a much needed shot in the arm for a campaign that many, including a few anonymous South Jersey Democrats, see as lacking gumption in a race against an expat like MacArthur (who is from Morris County). Despite her Burlington County roots, Belgard has been criticized for her lack of presence — MacArthur routinely criticizes her for skirting debate challenges and refusing to talk to the media — as well as for leading a “cookie-cutter campaign run by the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] playbook,” in the words of at least one Democratic operative. Supporters say Muller’s hiring can work to counteract that notion.
He also has considerable experience working with voters in the region, having played an important role in state Democrats’ redistricting efforts in 2011 and, more recently, state Sen. Linda Greenstein’s (D-14) campaign in the 12th district against Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15).
“He’s done an impeccable job in preserving the Democratic majorities in the senate and assembly over the last several cycles and I think he’s going to be an asset to Aimee’s campaign,” Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7), a South Jersey Democrat who’s publicly endorsed Belgard, told PolitickerNJ. “He’s one of the professional in our business who are really talented.”
“The third district is a Republican district that actually has a slight Democratic registrationist there, which means in a low turnout election, you could potentially buck the tide, if you can identify and turnout those Democratic voters,” added Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “And that’s Mike Muller’s specialty.”
But on the other hand, the timing of Muller’s hiring is also conspicuous, particularly as it comes on the heels of the Carpenters’ endorsement of MacArthur. That endorsement surprised many observers, who had expected the union to follow suite with South Jersey Democrats in supporting Belgard — a candidate already publicly endorsed by many of its own members, including Singleton.
According to Murray, Muller joining the Belgard team could be a sign of goodwill — or damage control — on the part of South Jersey Democrats following the Carpenters’ endorsement of MacArthur.
“That was surprising to me considering how close the Carpenters are to the South Jersey Democrats,” Murray said, adding that the Carpenters endorsement may have been a “signal from South Jersey Democrats that this is part of the deal to give Burlington a Republican congressman in exchange for other races, like if [state Senator] Dianne Allen steps down, they’re going to fight it.”
Either that, or “they figured that they’d [Belgard’s] campaign up as a lost cause because it didn’t look all that great anyway,” Murray said. “They question is, is he just window dressing, or is he really going to do the job?”
Singleton, a Carpenters member who is also considered a ‘rising star’ in South Jersey politics (in fact, PolitickerNJ puts him next in line behind Allen in LD7 for state senate), said the union’s endorsement posed somewhat of a conflict for him, but maintains the decision reflects the organizations feeling that MacArthur can better represent them in the district.
“We are a democracy, and the team felt that this is the direction that we needed to go,” Singleton told PolitickerNJ. “And as a member of the organization I respect that, politically. Do I think it’s a challenge for me as a Democratic assemblyman in Burlington County? I would say yes. But at the end of the day of organization is about successful, and about picking those candidates that are going to move our agenda as carpenters forward, and our leaders thought Tom MacArthur was that person.”
Still, other’s see Muller stepping into the ring at just the right time. Belgard’s campaign — in one of the only competitive House races in the country, some say — has gained more and more national attention over the last several weeks. The DCCC is spending $1.3 million on ads attacking MacArthur in the district between July and November, and the Belgard campaign launched it’s first ad of the general election last week, assuaging concerns that she’s being hiding in the shadows.
“She has been meeting her fundraising goals and that’s one of the reasons why she’s received the attention of the national Democratic committee, and I think Muller’s involvement in the campaign is recognition of how well she’s doing,” Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-7) told PolitickerNJ. “When national attention comes to the race so do people who have a national profile and who can help bring victory to a very qualified candidate.”
“I think now that she’s up on television, speaking through her own voice about what she’s going to do for the residents of the third congressional district, I think folks are going to see a clear contrast and reward her with an election to congress,” Singleton added. “I think they looked at their team and thought it best to add another pair of hands to that team. And there couldn’t have picked a better pair than Mike Muller’s.”
Murray agrees Muller will be a strong asset to the campaign, even if he’s arriving on the scene late.
“In some respects it’s a little late because they’ve already built this up, but Mike is a guy that can hit the ground running. He knows some of these voters. So he’s already walking in there understanding what motivate them, this type of Democratic voter, and that’s exactly what this is all about because if the turn out their base, and the Republicans are turning out their base, suddenly you have a real horse race. “