It's not often that a newly installed chair of the House Appropriations Committee calls it quits, but GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's decision not to seek a 13th term confirms months of rumors that he wasn't in the mood for his first ever truly competitive reelection race. Democrats were in prime position to cast him as the face of the House GOP agenda, and they'll have an excellent opportunity to pick up the seat without him on the ballot.
New Jersey's 11th CD is anchored by Morris County and was once the Republican bedrock of the state. But it's packed with wealthy, white-collar suburban professionals who are questioning their GOP identity in the Trump era — and uncomfortable with a GOP tax bill that cuts the SALT exemption. President Trump won the district 49 percent to 48 percent in 2016, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy narrowly carried the seat last November. Heading into 2018, Frelinghuysen was in an unenviable position, squeezed by both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, House conservatives were upset with him for insufficiently supporting their agenda (he ultimately voted against final passage of the tax bill) while holding a top committee gavel. On the left, newly awakened activists in the 11th CD were angry with him over his support for the healthcare repeal bill.
The past few months, Democrats have been uniting around former Navy helicopter pilot/federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill, whose non-political resume could make her tough to attack. Now, Sherrill won't be able to run against a powerful incumbent they can cast as the face of the GOP agenda in Washington, but she will likely have a head start against a Republican field that must start from scratch with the political winds in their face.
As in many other longtime GOP strongholds where incumbents are retiring, Republicans have a deep bench of local officeholders in Morris County. If state Assemblyman Jay Webber runs, he could be in a unique position to unite local elected officials (he's the former state GOP chair) with movement conservatives. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, Assemblyman Tony Bucco, Jr. and attorney/former Capitol Hill staffer Rosemary Becchi are also possibilities.
The burden of proof will be on Republicans to unite around a new nominee and catch up with Democrats in a very challenging political environment. For now, we're keeping this open seat in the Toss Up column, but Democrats may now be ever-so-slight favorites.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call