U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo might enjoy consistent and overwhelming support in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, where the Republican has won every one of his election bids with almost 60 percent of the vote. But that isn’t deterring Democrats from continuing to forward an energetic challenge for the seat this year, believing a contentious presidential election has opened the door to a potential progressive upset.
With less than two weeks to go before election day, Democratic hopeful David Cole is seeking to make the race a referendum on the embattled GOP nominee, Donald Trump. It’s a strategy many Democratic House candidates have employed in their bids against Republican incumbents across the state this year, but it’s particularly relevant — or at least hits closer to home — in District 2, where the real estate mogul remains a controversial figure thanks to his business dealings in a beleaguered Atlantic City.
Representing the largest geographic area in the state, New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District encompasses parts of eight southern counties and 92 municipalities, including a long stretch of the Jersey Shore hit by the 2008 recession, Hurricane Sandy, and casino shutdowns in Atlantic City. The once-thriving seaside city — which at the peak of its success was generating $5.2 billion in gaming revenues — has been lately plagued by fiscal hardship, having lost almost 10,000 jobs over the past few years as five of its gambling halls shuttered their doors.
Trump, who helped build up the city’s gaming industry throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, has faced criticism for having played a hand in its now-troubled economy. With the closing of the Trump Taj Mahal this month, which had been facing a worker strike over union contracts, all three of the casinos linked to the Republican presidential candidate have now flopped, forcing him to shoulder at least some of the blame for the ensuing fiscal fallout.
Cole, however, has sought to make the case that LoBiondo, at least by association, should also be held responsible for Atlantic City’s problems. In online ads and at press conferences, the software engineer and entrepreneur has highlighted Trump’s past support of the 11-term Republican incumbent, including almost $9,000 in donations the businessman has made to LoBiondo’s re-election campaigns.
According to Politifact, Trump made 12 separate donations to LoBiondo between 1996 to 2007, a time when the casino magnate was still making heavy investments in Atlantic City’s gaming industry.
“Donald Trump has had four bankruptcies in our district, devastating the local economy by laying off workers, failing to pay contractors, and depriving retirees of their savings,” Cole told NJ Spotlight last week. “Nowhere in our country is his record of failure more clear. Voters in South Jersey know we need to stop Trump from treating our country like he did our region, and that includes voting out the incumbents like our Congressman, who have maintained a decades-long financial and political relationship with Trump.”
How to address Atlantic City’s problems has become a political hot button not just in District 2 but across the state, as lawmakers in Trenton grapple with ways to bring some economic relief to its economy. At the behest of Gov. Chris Christie and other legislators who have demanded that city officials put their fiscal house in order or face a state takeover, Mayor Don Guardian unveiled more of his administration’s five-year recovery plan last week, announcing that, among other measures, the city will use $110 million in proceeds from the sale of Bader Field to the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority and issue tax-exempt bonds secured by the state’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act to pay down debt and shore up finances.
Lawmakers also approved a controversial constitutional amendment earlier this year that would end Atlantic City’s 40-year monopoly on gaming and expand it into more densely populated areas of north Jersey. If voters approve the referendum next month, two casinos could be built in places like the Meadowlands and Jersey City, with a portion of their revenues funneled back to Atlantic City to help offset economic losses.
Both Cole and LoBiondo oppose that ballot measure, arguing that casinos in the northern end of the state would divert crucial money and attention away from Atlantic City’s already struggling gaming industry.
“We need to focus on diversifying Atlantic City by growing the education and health sectors in the area, as well as building new infrastructure,” Cole said. “In particular, digital infrastructure like high-speed fiber-optic Internet will attract new business and support local small businesses.”
LoBiondo, for his part, has hit back against Cole’s campaign by accusing it of politicizing the issues and contending that his record of bipartisanship in the district reflects his commitment to putting residents first. A former Cumberland County freeholder and state Assemblyman who was elected to the seat after longtime Democratic incumbent William Hughes retired in 1994, LoBiondo is one of the House’s more centrist Republicans, having bucked the GOP agenda in recent years by voting against measures like the party’s fiscally conservative budget plan in 2015.
That political moderation has made LoBiondo a target for the party’s far right wing, but it’s also allowed him to maintain comfortable margins in a district that, with 128,000 registered Democrats to 119,000 registered Republicans and over 200,000 unaffiliated, leans slightly blue on paper. In 2014, he easily fended off a challenge by Hughes’ son, Bill Hughes Jr, despite the Democrat’s campaign having received support from U.S. Senator Cory Booker and national party organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Fighting off misguided proposals from Washington to close our FAA Technical Center in Atlantic County or Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May have also ensured South Jersey does not fall further behind in terms of economic recovery,” LoBiondo told NJ Spotlight last week. “I have worked closely with Sens. Booker and Bob Menendez as well as local officials to solve problems we face, whether it be more local healthcare options for our veterans or the National Emergency Grant to help retrain laid-off casino workers in Atlantic City.”
More recently, LoBiondo’s centrist bent has also helped him counter attacks from Cole regarding the incumbent’s receiving campaign donations from Trump. Amid wider GOP backlash over recent disparaging comments Trump made about women, LoBiondo officially retracted his endorsement of the Republican nominee earlier this month, saying he would “not vote for a candidate who boasts of sexual assault.”
Instead, LoBiondo said he would pencil in Trump’s running mate and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence — a decision he said last week he still stands by, though he also criticized Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whose actions regarding her managing of a private email server and leadership as secretary of state he said should preclude her from the Oval Office.
“Mr. Trump has very passionate supporters in South Jersey as well as a complicated history with Atlantic City,” LoBiondo said. “But Secretary Clinton’s dishonorable actions — flagrantly ignoring federal laws, repeated failures in judgment on critical foreign policy and national security decisions, and intentionally lying to Congress and the American people — have disqualified her to be president. A Democrat Senate and a Democrat House would be disastrous for our country and the challenges we face, particularly in national security and foreign policy. That said, I am focused on my race and my record of putting South Jersey first.”
LoBiondo said jobs and the economy are the key issues affecting voters in the 2nd District, which covers some of the most impoverished areas in the state and is still struggling to regain economic footing after the 2008 recession. According to a recent report by Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, six counties in South Jersey rank in the bottom 10 of the state’s 21 counties in income, poverty and unemployment rates, educational attainment levels, and health incomes.
“I have remained focused on building public-private partnerships to bring new economic opportunities — such as aviation-related research and the unmanned aerial systems or drones test site – to our region,” LoBiondo said. “I have also fought to ensure our beaches were rebuilt with 100 percent federal funding following superstorm Sandy, which is critical to our tourism-based economy and the thousands of jobs it supports.”
But Cole, a Rutgers University alumni who got his political start organizing New Jersey volunteers for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and served as a senior advisor of technology in the White House in 2010 and 2011, has cited college affordability and a low minimum wage as factors preventing South Jersey residents from getting ahead. He has called for increasing the national minimum wage and indexing it to the cost of living, as well as reducing student debt by giving students the same interest rates available to Wall Street banks.
He also said he ranks Social Security and climate change among the district’s more pressing issues, as South Jersey is home to both a large population of senior citizens and tourism industry.
“As someone who grew up here, I know there are real challenges facing South Jersey. We have the highest unemployment in the state,” Cole said. “College is unaffordable for many. The cost of living for families has been increasing while wages are flat. We can do better. As someone with experience growing a business and working to make the government more efficient, I want to revive our local economy so it works for everyone.”
A former general manager of the software startup Mapbox, Cole has also sought to highlight the role of technology in improving the economy and empowering voters. He holds regular meetings with voters on Facebook’s livestream, supports net neutrality, and has called for greater access high-speed Internet in schools and homes.
Cole ran for the party’s nomination in the district in 2014 but lost to the more well-connected Hughes Jr. He won this year’s primary with 81 percent of the vote.
“This race is incredibly close,” Cole said. “We are laying out a specific and balanced plan for turning around South Jersey that unites people from all political affiliations. At the same time, our opponent defended Donald Trump and the donations Trump made to his campaign throughout the year, alienating workers and business owners around Atlantic City who lost jobs and went unpaid during Trump’s bankruptcies. This is a unique moment to vote for a new direction.”
Still, the Democrat faces an uphill battle in his quest to unseat LoBiondo. The race has received little attention from national party committees, making it harder for Cole to raise the same kind of money the Republican incumbent has amassed. As of third quarter Federal Election Commission filings, Cole has raised $106,709 since January 2015 while LoBiondo has raised $1.3 million, the majority of which has come from political action committees.
LoBiondo’s top five contributors include casino unions like Unite Here and the National Education Association, and he’s also received outside support from independent expenditure-only groups like the American Unity PAC, which has spent $12,000 on media favoring the Republican in the district.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.