Democrats Target MacArthur on Health Care

His role in getting the GOP bill through the House could give him a far more competitive challenge next year.

Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., center, pauses while speaking to members of the media off the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, after the Republican health care bill passed in the House.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
May 30, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.”

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