N.J. sees spike in Republicans seeking congressional seats

By: - February 7, 2022 7:12 am

Ian Smith formally announcing his bid to unseat Rep. Andy Kim at the VFW in Delran on Feb. 3, 2022. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Ian Smith became a hero in Republican circles in 2020 when he kept his Atilis Gym in Bellmawr open in defiance of Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic restrictions.

“We took a stand for what is right and we made a promise to ourselves and our families that, no matter how hard it got, that we would remain true to our beliefs and our values and we would not give an inch to an out-of-control and tyrannical government,” Smith said Thursday to a crowd of supporters gathered inside a VFW hall in Delran.

The crowd was there to hear Smith announce he will attempt to unseat Rep. Andy Kim in the 3rd Congressional District this year, becoming one of a staggering 39 Republicans who have so far launched bids for congressional office in New Jersey this year.

The number of GOP candidacies far exceeds those seen in recent years, the 39 announced candidates nearly doubling the 20 Republicans that sought a seat in Congress in 2020. That number was just 22 in 2018.

Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said this is sometimes referred to as “the politics of ambition.”

“Ambitious candidates jump into the race when they think there’s a better chance to win, and the first mid-term election of a new president is always good for the party opposite of the president,” Dworkin said.

Still, the number of Republicans who say they will seek a seat in Congress this year is greater than it was during President Barack Obama’s first mid-term election, when 29 GOP candidates ran campaigns for a House seat. Changes in the partisan makeup of New Jersey’s congressional delegation could account for some of the discrepancy.

Democrats held seven of New Jersey’s 13 House seats in 2010, while the party controls 10 of the state’s 12 seats in the lower chamber today. New Jersey lost a congressional seat when district lines were redrawn following the 2010 census.

“There are a lot of Democratic incumbents, so there’s opportunity to run,” Dworkin said.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-07) now faces eight Republican challengers, the largest field of any of his colleagues, with Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) in a close second with six potential GOP opponents.

The comparison to past years is imperfect. Candidate tallies from previous election cycles were compiled using official candidate lists maintained by the secretary of state, while the current year’s list is composed of candidates who have announced their intent to run for congress.

It’s likely some of the 39 would-be Republican candidates won’t make it onto the primary ballot, either because they withdraw their candidacies between now and the April 4 deadline to formally declare their bids to the secretary of state, or because they file with too few signatures to survive a challenge to their nominating petitions.

At least four Republicans — Hillery Brotschol, Nicholas D’Agostino, Will Monk, and Nick Magner — have already pulled out of their races after declaring they would run.

The wave of Republican office-seekers follows a better-than-expected performance among New Jersey’s GOP candidates during last year’s legislative elections, during which Republicans picked up six Assembly seats and cut Democrats’ state Senate majority from 25 to 24.

It’s not clear whether that performance will carry over to the general election. Though animus to Democrats’ handling of the pandemic persists among some Republican voters, the general election is still roughly nine months away, and nine months is an eternity in politics.

But Republicans’ performance last year may have pushed some GOP candidates to seek office in a state widely regarded as a Democratic stronghold.

“They came out of the gubernatorial election with far better numbers than I think most people thought they would garner,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “I think they see an opening, especially with the state of the Biden administration and Biden’s very low approval ratings.”

President Joe Biden’s Real Clear Politics approval average sits 13 points underwater, 41.3% to 54.4%.

Koning’s read aligns with the view of at least one GOP leader.

“I think it’s because we had such a great election last year and people feel that if President Biden continues to deteriorate in the polls and in public approval that it’ll be a good opportunity for a historic red wave,” said Morris County Republican Chairwoman Laura Ali.

There’s also a split within the Republican field. Some candidates, like Smith, are relative newcomers to politics whose runs are, at least in part, a reaction to pandemic orders issued by Murphy and President Joe Biden.

Others — like former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, who forsook his seat in the Legislature to mount a repeat challenge to Malinowski — come from a distinctly more establishment stock.

Those divides could lead to fractious primaries with a greater number of candidates whose views lie far from the center.

That appears to be the case for Rep. Chris Smith (R-04). The 21-term incumbent faces five primary challengers, including Tricia Flanagan, a Republican who previously sought a Senate seat as an independent, and Mike Crispi, a conservative podcast host who propagated false claims that President Donald Trump won re-election in 2020.

That’s also likely to be the case in the 3d District, where Republican voters will choose between populist appeals from Smith, the gym owner, and Bob Healey, the millionaire owner of the Viking Yacht Company who appears favored to win official Republican Party support in the district. Healey’s campaign has, so far, put fiscal issues at the fore of its messaging.

“We always talk about the median voter and candidates playing to the median voter, but if we have districts that are considered basically safe, you’re going to have the incumbents being challenged in primaries by those that are farther and farther on the political spectrum,” Koning said.

A previous version of this article erroneously said Flanagan previously sought a U.S. Senate seat as a Libertarian. She ran as an Independent.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.