Local Republicans are struggling to recruit big-name candidates to run for the congressional seat that will be vacated by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in 2019.
LoBiondo, a Republican, has held the 2nd District seat since 1995, but as he prepares to leave it, the district has moved to the left. Several nonpartisan political committees, such as the Cook Political Report, have taken notice and recently reclassified the 2nd District as either “leaning Democratic” or a “toss up” after years of classifying it as leaning or solidly Republican.
The 2nd Congressional District covers all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, as well as parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean counties.
Republicans had looked to former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, state Sen. Chris Brown and former Assemblyman Vince Polistina as potential challengers to Van Drew, but all declined to run.
Guardian took a new job as business administrator in Toms River, Brown said he could not run in good faith after telling residents for a year he wanted to be their state senator, and Polistina isn’t interested in running, according to his own party chair.
In late November, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, announced he would run for Congress in the 2nd District, and so far, he has gained unanimous support from Democratic mayors in Atlantic County and has taken a commanding lead in raising funds for his campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“I think the reason strong Republicans are not getting into the race is because Sen. Van Drew is running,” said Mike Suleiman, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. “He’s someone with a lot of political experience, knows the district very well, and knows how to fund-raise for a big campaign like this.”
According to the Federal Election Commission, or FEC, Van Drew already had raised $80,391 through Dec. 31, 2017. By comparison, Democratic challengers Tanzie Youngblood and Sean Thom raised $30,540 and $9,388, respectively. Another Democratic candidate, William Cunningham, did not raise any money by the end of the year, according to the FEC.
Van Drew has gained support from independent political action committees and South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.
He also was added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue Campaign, which endorses and helps raise funds for select Democratic candidates in battleground districts.
“Jeff Van Drew has long been at the top of Democrats’ recruitment list,” the DCCC said on its website. “He is one of the most popular Democratic elected officials in South Jersey, regularly winning his Republican leaning Senate seat by double digits.”
Of the $80,391 Van Drew has raised, $58,391 has come from individual contributions, according to the FEC.
Republican challengers James Toto, Mark McGovern, Brian Fitzherbert and Bob Turkavage, had not raised any money by the end of the year.
John Zarych, a defense attorney who serves Atlantic and Cape May counties, told The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday he will announce his intent to run on the Republican side Wednesday. He also said he will infuse his campaign with a “substantial” amount of his own money later this week.
David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, said in a recent report things are not looking good for Republicans across the country.
“Most new district-by-district fundraising and polling numbers are downright terrible for Republicans, even in seats previously thought to be safe,” he said. “In the fourth quarter of (last year), 39 Republican House incumbents were outraised by at least one Democratic challenger, and private polls and special election results suggest Democrats are highly competitive even in some districts President Trump won by wide margins.”
Cumberland County Republican chairman Michael Testa and Cape May County Republican chairman Marcus Karavan both denied the party is struggling to recruit candidates, adding several people have chosen to run for political office for the first time.
Testa also added former Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi is considering a run, but has not yet made a decision.
“There’s been a lot of interest from people who have never run before; I’m not exactly sure why that is, but it’s a really good thing,” Testa said. “I will say that Sen. Van Drew is a very formidable opponent.”