N.J. Congressman Chris Smith to face 2020 challenge from former intern

Stephanie Schmid is a human rights advocate and former Foreign Service officer who opposes Smith’s stances on reproductive rights. She is also the Congressman's former intern.

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U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (left) and challenger Stephanie Schmid (right) (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (left) and challenger Stephanie Schmid (right) (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Among the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination to challenge Chris Smith, New Jersey’s sole surviving Republican in Washington, will be a former high school intern of the 20-term congressman.

Stephanie Schmid, 39, is a human rights advocate and former Foreign Service Officer who earned her law degree from U.C. Berkeley. She credits a summer spent in Smith’s office through a nonpartisan fellowship program for first exposing her to human rights issues — but also revealing a distaste for Smith’s politics.

“Even though I was only 16, I knew then that we did not share the same values, particularly when it comes to women’s rights and equality,” said Schmid.

She said she is motivated to run in response to the Trump administration’s stances on LGBTQ and reproductive rights, which align closely with Smith’s views. Her formal campaign launch is set for Sept. 7.

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But Schmid, like the other Democrats who have announced their intention to vie for Smith’s seat, will face an uphill battle. Other hopefuls include David Applefield of Red Bank, a writer and media strategist; Tiffany Kaszuba of Howell, a former lobbyist representing nonprofits; and Christine Conforti of Ocean Grove, a holistic business and leadership coach.

The 4th Congressional District, which includes parts of Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer counties, is the most GOP-friendly in the state, voting 8 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole, according to the most recent Cook Partisan Voting Index.

And Smith, who has served in Congress since the beginning of the Reagan administration and is a loud voice against abortion, has built a reputation for getting things done. He is known for excellent constituent services and regularly touts his record of having dozens of bills he sponsored become law.

“He’s got a great track record of making progress,” said New Jersey Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt. “He’s written laws to help veterans, families facing autism, families dealing with Alzheimer’s, and I think all of us know he’s known nationally for the legislation that he’s done helping victims of human trafficking.”

Schmid said she is hoping to ride to victory the same energy that was on display in the 2018 midterm elections, when frustration with President Trump, including among suburban women voters, helped flip four New Jersey congressional seats from Republicans to Democrats.

New Jersey Republicans now have their smallest U.S. House delegation in a century.

In the interview, Schmid railed against Smith’s support for a so-called “global gag rule,” which prevents foreign NGOs from receiving U.S. health assistance if they discuss or perform abortions, and Smith’s votes against the Violence Against Women Act after it was expanded in 2013 to include protections for gay, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

“It’s time for Chris Smith to be sent into retirement back in Virginia, where he lives and owns a home, and he no longer represents the values of New Jersey and my community,” Schmid said.

Smith, 66, has owned a house in Virginia for most of his time in Congress. He also owns a home in Hamilton, N.J. In a 2008 interview, Smith defended his time spent in Virginia as good for his constituents and a way to be close to his family.

Schmid grew up in Ridgewood, in Bergen County, and moved from Washington, D.C., to Little Silver, in Monmouth County, in June. She resigned as legal counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights last month to pursue her run for Congress. She previously spent seven years in the U.S. Foreign Service, leaving in 2018 after what she called a “disheartening” first year of the Trump administration.

Smith’s office did not respond to interview requests. But Steinhardt said “you can’t boil down a congressional race to a singular issue” like abortion.

“And when it comes to taking strong stances on human rights, I don’t know that there’s anyone in the New Jersey congressional delegation who’s been stronger on that than Chris,” he said.

Political observers generally agree. Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said similar attacks against Smith have been tried before.

“Every Democrat who has run against him has challenged him as being an extremist on abortion, has challenged him in recent years as someone who doesn’t really live in the district, and these challenges haven’t proven to be effective enough,” he said.

Smith will have another dynamic working in his favor next year, Dworkin said: Democrats have first-term incumbents to defend in other parts of the state.

“The big money from the national party, from the state party, from the independent expenditure groups are going to go into protecting those new, first-term incumbent Democrats,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t think many observers believe there will be many resources for a challenger against Chris Smith. It’s simply not the priority in New Jersey, which is a very expensive state in which to run a campaign.”

Smith’s margin of victory in 2018 was his narrowest since 1984. But it was still a convincing 13 percentage points.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that while U.S. Rep. Smith once rented an apartment in New Jersey, he owns a home in the state.

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