Rep. Tom MacArthur has been on national Democrats’ target list since January, but his efforts this month to resuscitate the House health care bill placed an even brighter spotlight on the second-term New Jersey Republican.
When the American Health Care Act looked dead, MacArthur stepped in with his eponymous amendment that would allow states to apply for waivers to comply with portions of the bill. That provision helped get the bill passed on May 4 and led to a revised Congressional Budget Office score that projected 23 million people would lose their health coverage by 2026.
Strategists were split on the effectiveness of using AHCA as a cudgel in the race, but a Democrat said older voters might now take a fresh look at MacArthur and decide that he doesn’t represent their interests.
Democrats’ first challenge is finding a viable candidate in an area they’ve represented in Congress for only one term in the past 50 years and a district that President Trump carried by 6 points. Their 2016 nominee was Frederick LaVergne, an unemployed perennial candidate with numerous legal and money problems. MacArthur dispatched him by 20 points, improving on his 10-point 2014 win against Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard.
Civil-rights attorney Katherine Hartman has already declared, and Andrew Kim, former national security aide to President Obama, is widely expected to join the race. But Betsy Ryan, the outgoing head of the New Jersey Hospital Association and subject of chatter in recent months, told National Journal that she has no plans to run at this time.
There is a small bench of Democratic elected officials in the district. Burlington County is historically Republican at the local level, even as towns closer to Philadelphia have trended Democratic in the past 30 years, while Ocean County is a GOP stronghold. Both counties’ boards of freeholders are entirely Republican.
Only two Democratic state assemblymen represent parts of the 3rd. Troy Singleton told National Journal that he is focused on his 2017 legislative race for the state Senate and has not been contacted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Herb Conaway, who lost the 2004 race for this seat to longtime Republican incumbent Jim Saxton, did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Even with potential AHCA blowback, Republicans are confident that MacArthur will win. One Republican pointed out that turning the race into a proxy battle over the AHCA may not be a winning strategy due to the district’s comparatively low Affordable Care Act enrollment rate.
“On paper I see why Democrats see it as a place to play … but once Democrats look at it in a sober way” and realize how much it would cost to dislodge MacArthur, they may look elsewhere on their path to the majority, said Chris Russell, a Republican consultant who worked on the congressman’s two campaigns.
The district is located in south-central New Jersey and includes some suburban Philadelphia townships. Relatedly, a major hurdle for potential challengers is MacArthur’s personal wealth. The former insurance executive spent $5 million on his 2014 race and has the ability to self-fund again, which includes buying ad time in the New York and Philadelphia media markets.
“These are the first- and fourth-most expensive media markets in the country,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Dworkin said a candidate would need to raise a few million dollars to prove their viability, and that it is an uphill climb if the South Jersey Democratic machine run by George Norcross III, brother of Rep. Donald Norcross, doesn’t invest.
“I haven’t seen that unicorn yet,” said one Democratic consultant, who credited MacArthur’s political team as “one of the best in the state.”