When the races toward November’s general election for congressional campaigns in the state began in earnest earlier this year, the prospect of any one them turning out to be truly competitive seemed slim — including the one in South Jersey’s third congressional district, where Republican businessman Tom MacArthur is knuckling with Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard to succeed outgoing U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R-3).
Early on, the challenges for the Democratic hopeful — any Democratic hopeful — in that race were clear: CD3 is, for the most part, a conservative-leaning district, a breeding ground and springboard for Washington-aspiring Republican candidates going back over a century (with the exception of the late John Adler in 2008, who eked out a Democratic victory on the coattails of Barack Obama’s own bid for the presidency). This time around, it’s also an issue of money for Belgard, who’s own attempts at fundraising — though successful — have come up short against the self-funding MacArthur.
But in a lopsided matchup where the advantage was long thought to belong to the Republican contender — both because of funding and given the territory — the congressional race between Tom MacArthur and Democratic hopeful Aimee Belgard looks to be shaping up to be closer than anyone had predicted.
At least, the developments this week in the race would indicate as much.
On Tuesday, the Stockton Polling Institute released numbers that show Belgard and MacArthur neck-and-neck among likely voters in CD3, usually friendly to Republicans, whether district expats like MacArthur or no. Both candidates received 42.5 percent support of the 606 people surveyed, with Belgard leading with 45 percent to MacArthur’s 39 percent in Burlington County and MacArthur leading in Ocean County, 47 percent to 38 percent. Another poll, this one concerning the U.S. Senate race between Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jeff Bell, shows Booker leading Bell by 9 points — reinforcing the possibility that a Republican candidate might be more vulnerable this year than usual.
Additionally, attacks between the campaigns have continued — if not intensified — over the last few weeks, with the MacArthur camp going negative on Belgard with two 15 second network TV ads blasting the Democrat for rescinding a promise to leave her Burlington County freeholder salary untouched, among other allegations, and cornering her as a “dishonest politician.” It’s not the first time the Republican’s campaign has attacked the Democrat on those grounds (and vice versa), but it does seem to be the most public display of their emotion.
Finally, both camps have finally agreed to square off in person at a handful of meet-the-candidates events after Belgard, according to MacArthur’s campaign, continued “ducking” debate challenges throughout the summer (though Frank Luna, campaign manager for MacArthur, maintains that Belgard still refused a number of debates with MacArthur, and pointed out that the press release Belgard’s camp issued this week announcing the locations and dates of the confirmed events was riddled with errors).
While MacArthur’s campaign cautions toward lending any credence to the recent polling numbers in particular, citing their own internal metrics — as well as another poll released earlier this week by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — that show Belgard trailing the Republican, observers who once looked upon Belgard’s campaign with little hope (whether because the odds are stacked too steeply against her or because, as some have argued, she’s simply running a bad campaign) will have to admit that things seem to be heating up. That’s the diagnosis of Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, who told PolitickerNJ this week’s developments point to the possibility of a real horse race between the candidates.
Like MacArthur’s camp, Murray doesn’t place much weight on the poll numbers either — congressional polling in the third district is difficult to do, he says — but he does see significance elsewhere.
“I think the more telling thing is that way the campaigns have been behaving,” Murray said. “The number of joint debates that they’re willing to hold, the fact that they’re attacking each other, suggests that their own internal polling numbers are showing that this could be closer than many of us thought it might be.”
He notes the attack ads, though negative, place Belgard’s face prominently on screen and in front of voters — a move not voluntarily undertaken, unless by a campaign that feels threatened.
“If you don’t think you’re opponent is in a good position, if you don’t think they have good name recognition, those kinds of things, you don’t want to give it to them,” Murray said. “Obviously if you think it’s close then you go on the air.”
For their part, the Belgard campaign is embracing the poll numbers as further evidence that the Democrat, even in a district that tends heavily to the right, has a real opportunity if she can turn out the right voters. And that could be doable this year, with a ticket headed by Democratic superstar Booker, who told PolitickerNJ earlier today that he plans on sticking around the state over the next coupled months and campaigning for within-reach Democrats like Belgard.
“Tom MacArthur has spent over $3 million and hasn’t moved the needle — those numbers are great,” said Hannah Ledford, campaign manager for Belgard For Congress, adding later that “the Stockton Poll confirms that this is one of the most competitive house races in the nation, showing a dead-heat less than two months from election day.
While we’re not likely to see a repeat of 2008’s upset, when Adler ascended to the position with the hurricane winds of Barack Obama’s own bid for the presidency at his back, Booker could have a similar effect on Belgard — though more in terms of sheer turnout than candidate association, according to Murray.
“People don’t vote for congress based on who’s running for senate,” he said. “They might turn out to vote because of who’s at the top of the ticket and then just go down the line, but they don’t say, ‘oh because you’re affiliated with Booker, then I’m going to vote for you.'”
But MacArthur’s campaign maintains they’ve seen nothing in this race that’s made them rethink their strategy. MacArthur is running his campaign just as aggressively as he was when he was in the ring with former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan during this year’s primary, Luna said, and will continue to do so up until the polls close.
“Through the primary and now into the general, we have been running this race like we are ten votes behind and will do so until 8PM on Election Day,” Luna said, adding that “the DCCC is so concerned about Belgard’s mess of a campaign that they were forced to leak a poll that showed her losing in order to defend her viability. That’s what happens when a Democrat in a co
mpetitive district gets shut out of major trades union endorsements and the support they provide.”
“We feel extremely confident with the state of this campaign and Tom’s ability as a candidate,” he added.