Fight of the Week: Roy Cho v. Aimee Belgard

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WIth just two weeks to go in New Jersey’s congressional races, political intrigue in the state is shifting from CD3, where Aimee Belgard (right) faces Republican Tom MacArthur, to CD5, where Democrat Roy Cho (left) faces incumbent Scott Garrett.

With just two weeks to go before election day on Nov. 4th, candidates in New Jersey’s most competitive congressional races are hurrying to land the last few shots against their opponents or unveil their last ditch get-out-the-vote efforts in time to close the gap and secure their seat in Washington. This is especially true in the state’s second, third, and fifth congressional districts, where three Democrats find themselves in the final throes of campaigning against their better-funded and seemingly better-positioned Republican opponents. But changing involvement from national Democratic organizations has threatened to shake-up the outcomes of at least two of those races — or, at the very least, has resulted in a shift in political intrigue from South Jersey’s third congressional district to North Jersey’s fifth congressional district in the final days of the contests.

The Background

Since the beginning of this year’s election cycle, the CD3 race between Aimee Belgard and Tom MacArthur was pegged as the one to watch. MacArthur proved himself a strong enough candidate from the outset, first when his personal wealth and ability to self fund made him a favorite among fellow Republicans and later when he handily defeated a rogue Steve Lonegan in the party’s primary, setting him up for a contest with Belgard, the Democrats’ own nominee. With roots in the district (she’s a Burlington County freeholder and former Edgewater Park councilwoman) and early funding successes, Belgard’s campaign soon caught the attention of national organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which threw its support behind the candidate with some $1.2 in Philadelphia and New York media buys, while also placing her on its Red-to-Blue list. The district itself, encompassing parts of Burlington and Ocean Counties, has a solid history of leaning Republican — but multiple polls over the course of the last two months placed the candidates neck-and-neck among voters, reinforcing the DCCC’s hopes and convincing many observers that Belgard stood a serious chance against MacArthur.

The other race-to-watch, at least according to the DCCC’s own metrics, was the one in CD2, where Democratic hopeful Bill Hughes, Jr., announced he’d be challenging 10-term Congressman Frank LoBiondo. Son of former CD2 congressman Bill Hughes, Sr., Hughes too was promised support by the national party, finding himself on the DCCC’s Emerging Races list as early as the Democratic primary and touting his district, which covers an entire east-to-west swath of South Jersey, as one of the most competitive in the country. Democratic on paper but with a historically Republican-bent, the district has long been friendly to LoBiondo, however — he’s held the seat for the last 20 years and has built a strong base of support there, from local union muscle to business organizations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A recent poll had the two contenders within 6 points of each other.

The odd-race-out, then, was that of Democratic contender Roy Cho in north Jersey’s CD5. Vying for the seat against Republican Scott Garrett, a 12 year incumbent and largely considered the state’s “most conservative congressman,” Cho’s campaign received less attention from political observers in that state because the odds seemed stacked against the Democrat: Cho has never ran for public office until this year, for one thing (he spent much of the last couple years working as a corporate lawyer in New York City, only moving to the district in 2012). For another, Garrett has never won the seat by less than 11 points, has amassed a sizable war chest during his tenure in Washington (at as much as $3 million), and, though once an outsider, increasingly finds himself in the mainstream of a tea party-dominated Republican caucus. The district itself — dominated by Bergen County and encompassing parts of Sussex, Warren and Passaic counties — also has a history of leaning Republican, though recent redistricting has turned it slightly less red.

Shift in Focus

The big question in all of these races, of course, was whether or not the fledgling Democrats can rally enough support — both in terms of voter turnout and funding — to beat out their moneyed and well-liked Republican opponents. In both CD5 and CD2, the challenges were obvious: both face longtime conservative Republicans with comparatively greater campaign coffers and establishment support, Cho against Garrett and Hughes against LoBiondo. In CD3, the situation is a little different: Belgard, with the help of the DCCC, was early on considered to stand a better chance against MacArthur than either Hughes or Cho did against their competition, as MacArthur, despite the advantage of personal wealth, had to overcome the fact that he entered the race an out-of-district candidate from North Jersey. Those odds turned much of the focus to the Belgard-MacArthur contest, including the focus of national Democrats, who saw the open seat race as an opportunity.

But with just two weeks to go before election day, that focus has changed. It seems now that if political observers were looking for a real contest and national Democrats the opportunity for a pick-up seat as they work to overturn a Republican majority in the House in November, the place to find it was not South Jersey at all, where Hughes and Belgard trail their Republican counterparts by increasing margins, but in North Jersey’s fifth district, where an aggressive campaign on the part of the Democrat has brought Cho within striking distance of the incumbent.

The shift in political intrigue, particularly from the race in CD3 to the race in CD5, was triggered over the past two weeks by a series of key developments that could have a real impact on the outcome of one or both races. In CD5, the first development — brought on by a Monmouth University poll showing Cho trailing his incumbent opponent by a scant five points with under three weeks to go before election day — is the revelation the race there is closer than anyone had expected (besides the Democrat’s own campaign team, of course). According to Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University professor responsible for the poll, Cho’s campaign “flew under the radar,” and it was only in the last couple weeks that his team decided it might be worth looking into. “And sure enough, the numbers are what the numbers are. This is a close race,” he said.

Murray attributes Cho’s recent success in the race to the aggressive campaigning the Democrat’s team has run, compared with the weak campaign Garrett is running. That aggressiveness came to the fore last month when Cho called the Republican out on a Garrett For Congress Hurricane Sandy mailer that said the congressman had brought “immediate relief to Sandy victims” — when, in reality, and as Cho pointed out, Garrett was the only member of the New Jersey delegation who wouldn’t sign a Nov. 5, 2012 letter urging House leaders to act quickly in response to the disaster. In addition, Garrett has been criticized for dodging debate challenges and inquiries from the press (as PolitickerNJ’s own Mark Bonamo has experienced first hand). All of that has allowed Cho to put some serious dents in Garrett’s image and make inroads among voters naturally less friendly to the uber-conservative congressman — namely in parts of Bergen County, seen as a bellwether in statewide elections. “Regardless of whether you’re used to winning by 10 points and the constituents irrespectively re-elect you, you still have to ask them to vote,” Murray added, offering as a useful comparison the campaign of CD2’s own incumbent, Frank LoBiondo, who continues to put distance between himself and his Democratic challenger because he’s “still out there attending every pancake breakfast in the district.”

The other development, this one in CD3, likewise had to do with recent polling — though the numbers there bode somewhat more unfavorably on the Democratic hopeful. While polls as late as last month continued to point to a heated race between Belgard and MacArthur — more than one poll showed the two tied — a more recent Monmouth University poll showed MacArthur holding a comfortable 10 point lead over Belgard, with 51 percent of voters putting their support behind the Republican and 41 percent putting their support behind the Democrat. While not an insurmountable margin, it does indicate that Belgard is up against a significant challenge in closing the gap before Nov. 4th — and many, like Patrick Murray, see little hope for her doing so. “That race was probably never as close as anyone thought,” Murray said, arguing that MacArthur likely held a roughly-10 point lead over Belgard throughout much of the race.

According to many observers — including MacArthur’s own camp, which has used the failed ads to discredit the Democrat’s own candidacy– Belgard’s chances were likely made worse by setbacks resulting from the involvement of the DCCC, her biggest and most moneyed supporter but also stumbling block, which was forced to pull two of its ads attacking MacArthur’s record this summer when the Republican’s camp threaten the organization with defamation lawsuits. That forced Belgard to confront — publicly, many times — her relationship with the organization, which many others criticized was too close from the start (Belgard’s team was initially made up of many Washington Democratic operatives until New Jersey’s Mike Muller was recruited halfway through the race). Murray, however, also credits the district’s vicious Republican primary — between MacArthur and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan — as another factor that made Belgard’s bid an uphill battle from the beginning. “The fact that [MacArthur] had to go through the mudslinging with Lonegan actually helped inoculate him against Belgard’s attacks,” he said. “What happened was Lonegan went so over the top that it made voters in that district skeptical of anyone elses attacks on MacArthur. So the DCCC started launching their attacks and then had to pull them back, it just confirmed voters impression that people had it out for Tom MacArthur and that the attacks were unwarranted.”

Both the successes (in CD5) and setbacks (in CD3) were further compounded this week when the news broke, first, that the DCCC was moving off its remaining reservations for broadcast television in the Philadelphia market, which they entered earlier in the cycle to support not only Belgard but also Pennsylvania’s 6th and 8th district candidates. Then, later, it was announced that the House Majority PAC, another national organization supporting Democrats in House races, had moved its advertising money from CD3 to neighboring CD1, where state Sen. Donald Norcross, by just about all accounts, is running towards certain victory against Republican hopeful Garry Cobb. CD1 is seen as solidly Democratic, and Donald Norcross is the older brother of George Norcross III, an insurance executive who is generally acknowledged to be the prime South Jersey Democratic power broker.

Naturally, political observers took the moves as signs that national Democrats were giving up on Belgard’s campaign — even though the DCC still has $1.2 million in cable TV buys for Belgard in CD3 and “are booked to stay on the air all the way through to election day,” according to spokesperson Marc Brumer. Brumer told PolitickerNJ that the forfeiture of reservations in the Philly broadcast market have nothing to do with the race in CD3, and that the organization his still fully behind the Democrat there. But, paired with the more recent move by the House Majority PAC, that hasn’t keep observers from shifting their attentions elsewhere, and Republicans from taking it as a clear victory. “Aimee Belgard’s campaign has zero ideas, zero credibility, and now zero support from what was supposed to be one of her biggest backers – House Majority PAC. After seeing Belgard trailing by 10 points in the latest public poll, the actions of her Washington allies make it clear that they think she has zero chance of winning,” NRCC Spokesman Ian Prior said in response to the latest news. Other non-partisan CD3 race observers, including the Rothenberg Political Report, have moved the district’s rating from toss-up/leans Republican to safe Republican.

The Verdict

With CD3 now looking like it could go toward the Republicans, Democrats across the state are turning their eyes to the state’s other contests. In CD2 — a race arguably even less competitive than CD3, with one recent poll showing LoBiondo leading Hughes by 21 points — U.S. Senator Cory Booker, appearing at a campaign event with Hughes early this month, has said he wants to “send the DCCC a message” with the hope of attracting the organization’s support and finances in the final days of the race. In CD1, Norcross is already getting the attention he probably doesn’t need, thanks to the House Majority PAC shift, which could be sending a message to future prospective Republican challengers in the district to stay far away from that seat.

But the most chatter has surrounded CD5, where Cho continues to build momentum against Garrett in a race that, according to Murray, might be Democrats’ last real chance at scoring a House seat in November. “This was a race nobody was paying attention to,” Murray said. “And considering that the DCCC was putting money into the third and had the second on its watch list, and those aren’t anywhere near as close as this race is, that’s a big deal — particularly since all the races that the DCCC had been playing in nationwide have almost all turned out to be busts.” Other state Democrats have taken note, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, who told PolitickerNJ yesterday that national Democrats are “foolish” not to support Cho (fun fact: chiming in on that article in a Facebook comment, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg concurred with Sweeney, saying, “Senator Sweeney you are right! This is a dumb move. Who makes these decisions?”). And earlier this week, John Curry, chairman of the State Democratic Party, called on DCCC chairman Steve Israel to put resources into the CD5 race, saying he’s “excited as hell about” it.

So far, the DCCC has not responded to the pleas for attention from Cho supporters in CD5. But it looks like the Democrat — if he can get around the Garrett campaign’s recent voter fraud allegations — might still stand a chance on his own. Fight of the Week: Roy Cho v. Aimee Belgard