When South Jersey Congressman and former Eagles lineman Jon Runyan announced he’d be retiring from politics, Democrats saw a prime opportunity to pick up a Republican seat in this year’s midterm elections.
Though the 3rd District has primarily sent Republicans to Washington, voters have supported President Obama twice — and before that, George Bush. And before that, Al Gore. That’s why Democrats have placed their bets here and taken a gamble on a candidate from the district.
Aimee Belgard, 40, says growing up in Haddonfield, Camden County, she never intended to run for Congress.
That changed after both her parents died of cancer by the time she was 30. She started volunteering with the American Cancer Society and soon became a state ambassador for the organization, leading other volunteers to Trenton and Washington, D.C., to lobby elected officials.
“After years of meeting with legislators, I sort of had this ‘aha’ moment where I realized that they’re there to work for us, they’re not celebrities,” she said. “I decided instead of asking other people, I would run myself and get involved.”
She was elected to the township committee in Edgewater Park where she lives with her husband and two sons.
Belgard ran for Burlington County Freeholder and lost in 2010. She ran again and won two years ago. She quit her job as an appellate and trial attorney last fall to make her bid for Congress.
Belgard won support early on from local Democratic committees and from influential national organizations including EMILY’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates.
Advocating federal funds for health research
She follows the party on most national issues, including raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and abortion rights. She says she wants to “fix” the Affordable Care Act and supports what she calls a “tough, but fair” immigration policy. But Belgard speaks most passionately about preserving federal funding for health research.
“We need to keep our country moving forward with innovative advances in medical research, and we do that through the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control,” she said. “When I realize that we’re kind of moving backwards in that regard, I thought if we can’t get this right, I’m really worried about some of the bigger issues.”
Her lifelong ties to South Jersey have also been a selling point since her Republican challenger, Tom MacArthur, served as the mayor of Randolph in North Jersey as recently as last year.
But she is running a cautious race and does most of her campaigning outside the media spotlight. Her campaign manager, a national Democratic operative, did not respond to requests to follow Belgard on the trail for this story.
Former running mate Burlington County Freeholder Joanne Schwartz describes Belgard as an ethical public servant who has a genuine interest in helping others.
“I think that Aimee is not being shown as her true self,” said Schwartz. “I think the negative ads, which are extremely polished, are doing her a disservice.”
Missteps by Democratic organization
Both campaigns have done their share of on-screen mud slinging with the help of millions of dollars from national groups.
Unfortunately for Belgard, her most prominent national backer may have hurt as much as helped her. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled two of its ads off the air after questions were raised about their accuracy.
The most recent poll shows MacArthur leading by 10 points, cooling off what was billed as one of the country’s hottest races.
But political analysts say there are other factors working against Belgard, among them Obama’s low approval ratings and the political leanings of the 3rd District.
“The composition of the district plus the national mood, the standing of the president in the eyes of the voters, tend to be ultimately decisive,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker.
A major Democratic PAC recently pulled its support from Belgard to help Donald Norcross in New Jersey’s 1st District, even though he’s expected to cruise to victory there. Now, instead of playing to win on Republican turf, it seems the Democrats are playing it safe to protect their own.
But that – and the fact MacArthur just put another million dollars of his own money into the campaign – isn’t stopping Belgard who held a press conference Tuesday to criticize Republicans for cuts to federal college grants and to take a few final jabs at her opponent.
“He is now the No. 1 self-funder in the entire country,” she said. “So he’s got to be a little bit worried. We must be doing something right here.”
This is the first of two profiles on the congressional race in New Jersey’s 3rd District between Aimee Belgard (D) and Tom MacArthur (R).