Former federal prosecutor and Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill has become the first Democrat to announce a challenge to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican who has represented the 11th District for 22 years.
Frelinghuysen — one of two members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation who voted for the American Health Care Act last week — has never faced much of a fight in his reliably conservative district in the Morris County suburbs, a deep red bastion rich with well-to-do conservatives.
But there are signs that the political winds may be changing, and Democrats see an opening to turn the seat blue in the 2018 midterms.
“He has definitely been rubber-stamping Trump’s agenda and putting his own personal agenda ahead of his district,” Sherrill told Observer NJ in an interview. “I just decided it was time that this district had a congressperson ahead of their own Washington ambitions.”
Financial firepower will be key for a successful Democratic challenge, since Frelinghuysen — the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — is likely to be well-funded next year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made the 11th District a target in January. Last week, the group launched a series of digital ads targeting Frelinghuysen for his decision to vote in favor of the GOP health care bill. A super PAC called NJ 11th for Change has gone on the attack, demanding that Frelinghuysen face his constituents at a town hall event this year.
Political analysts say Frelinghuysen’s shifting views on the AHCA (he opposed an earlier version in March because of Medicaid cuts, then switched to yes last week without significant changes to the Medicaid rollback) may pose an obstacle, but one that he could overcome. If his seat was truly in danger, Frelinghuysen might have voted no on the AHCA, according to Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison.
But Sherrill said she was encouraged by redistricting changes, like one in 2011 that folded part of Montclair, the heavily liberal town where Sherrill lives with her husband and four children, into the district. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the district by 9 percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney won by 5 points. In November, Hillary Clinton lost to President Trump by less than 1 point.
“The district itself has been moving reliably to the left,” Sherrill said. “The grassroots organizations are registering a bunch of new voters and I think those groups have brought to people’s attention that Rodney Frelinghuysen is saying one thing in New Jersey and voting another way in Washington, D.C.”
Frelinghuysen has long built his reputation on being a moderate but groups such as the League of Conservation Voters have steadily lowered his rating, from a high of 75 percent in 1997, to 8 percent in 2016.
Sherrill, 45, isn’t the only Democrat who is interested in the seat. Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) has confirmed that he has met with the DCCC and is also considering a challenge to Frelinghuysen.
After leaving the Navy in 2003, Sherrill earned her law degree from Georgetown University and later began working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
When contacted about Sherrill’s challenge to Frelinghuysen, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Martin issued the following statement: “Congressman Frelinghuysen has led the charge in reducing government spending, lowering the tax burden on families, and promoting economic expansion in New Jersey’s 11th. As a Vietnam veteran, Rep. Frelinghuysen also understands the challenges our distinguished military families face – and he works tirelessly to ensure they receive the high-quality care they deserve.”