BORDENTOWN, N.J. -- “Do you feel like there is a steady hand at the wheel? Do you feel like you’re in good hands right now?”
Andy Kim, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur for a congressional seat in south-central New Jersey, sees these questions as pivotal to November’s election. They are singularly appropriate after a week of dangerous chaos ignited by President Trump’s European trip and new indictments in the Russia probe.
In an interview at a diner here before picking up his 2-year-old son Austin at a daycare center nearby, Kim predicts that by November, voters will view electing a Democratic-controlled House as essential to providing “a check against this administration” and restoring some “stability” to Washington.
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With three highly competitive House races, New Jersey is key to this effort. Democrats have fielded candidates with long histories of public service who were encouraged to join the electoral fray by the sense of emergency Trump’s presidency has created.
Kim was assigned by the State Department in 2011 to work with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Having experienced first-hand the role our NATO allies have in supporting the war effort, he says he was especially horrified by Trump’s attacks on the alliance.
Mikie Sherrill, who served nearly a decade in the Navy as a helicopter pilot, is the Democrats’ nominee to the north in the 11th District. “We’re used to getting missions accomplished working with people across many different backgrounds,” she says in a telephone interview, adding calmly but -- in light of current circumstances -- pointedly: “We’ve all taken an oath to the Constitution.”
And nearby in the 7th District, Tom Malinowski, who served in the State Department during the Obama administration working on issues related to democracy and human rights, is taking on Republican Rep. Leonard Lance. Malinowski is eloquent during an interview in describing “the all-American middle-ground issues that the Trump Republicans” have ceded to Democrats in moderate districts.
“We’re now the party of fiscal responsibility in America, we didn’t just add $2 trillion to the national debt for that tax cut that Warren Buffett didn’t want,” he tells me. “We’re the party of law enforcement in America, we don’t vilify the Federal Bureau of Investigation every single day. We’re the party of family values, we don’t ... take kids from their parents at the border. We’re the party of patriotism in America that wants to defend this country against our foreign adversaries.”
It is a sign of the power of the activism Trump has unleashed that the popular incumbent in Sherrill’s district, Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, decided to retire after months of demonstrations at his district office. The protestors underscored how vexing this year’s climate would be even for popular incumbents.
Contesting an open seat against Republican state legislator Jay Webber, Sherrill appears to have the best chance of the three, although Malinowski has held a very narrow lead over Lance in some polls while Kim is closely behind MacArthur whose staunch conservatism, Kim argues, puts the incumbent well to the right of his district.
For his part, Lance notes that he is on the “center right,” distinguishing himself from his party’s right-wing radicals. In an interview, Lance lists a series of votes he cast against Republican bills, including the GOP tax cut. It is deeply unpopular in New Jersey, a high tax state, because of its near-elimination of the state and local tax deduction. He has also been assailing Malinowski as a “carpetbagger” (the Democrat grew up just outside the district, in Princeton).
Malinowski says the electorate understands that the carpetbagger charge is a distraction. He cites the many times Lance fell in with conservatives, and makes the broader case that change in Washington will be impossible if Republicans maintain control of the House. “If we want different results,” he says. “we’re not going to get them by re-electing him.”
Yet if Trump looms over the election, all three New Jersey Democrats are campaigning primarily on bread-and-butter issues -- health care, state and local taxes (that GOP tax bill), economic insecurity felt even by the relatively affluent, and infrastructure. The last of these has particular power in these commuter-heavy districts, given the failure of Republican budgets to finance the Gateway tunnel between New Jersey and New York City.
In Malinowski’s view, the public is already so aware of the election’s stakes that Democrats don’t need to mention Trump very much. “You just need to affirmatively champion core American values,” he says.
Day by day, the president is making this strategy ever more plausible.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.