Field for ‘bellwether’ CD11 race begins to take shape

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Assemblyman Jay Webber is the only Republican to declare his candidacy for Rodney Frelinghuysen’s vacated seat so far. He sent out an e-mail Saturday saying, “I’m all in!”

“This seat is going to be a bellwether seat across the country. Control of Congress could hinge on the 11th Congressional District and it’s too important to sit on the sidelines. I feel like I have to get in, represent the values of my constituents and my neighbors and help keep the seat for the good of the country,” Webber explained.

Webber has put out a long list of local elected officials supporting him.

Veteran Republican State Sen. Joe Pennachio was a likely candidate, but has decided against it.

“Too many variables,” he said Tuesday from Florida. “You go to Washington, you have to start all over again.”

Republican Assemblyman Tony Bucco says he’s seriously considering it and will make a decision over the next couple of weeks.

“This is not something that you just jump head first in. This is a very important seat. I think this will become, now that Congressman Freylinghusen has retired, this will become a bellwether seat for the country, and that’s an important decision to make. We have to have the right candidate who is able to energize the party,” said Bucco.

Bucco has put out his own list of supporters and thinks his prospects are solid.

“The people of this country, and in the 11th Congressional District, I think are looking for a leader. Someone who is willing to work hard, tackle the tough problems, is not afraid to work across the aisle. I’ve done that, Michael. I’ve done that in Trenton in the four terms that I’ve served down there so far and now going into my fifth,” said Bucco.

The district has long leaned Republican. Sixty percent of it is in Morris County, a traditional Republican stronghold. But at the headquarters of Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a dozen people were calling voters Tuesday, and it’s only February.

The former Navy helicopter pilot and former federal prosecutor downplays the significance of Frelinghuysen’s exit.

“We still have a hard fight ahead of us and making sure that people understand the message, so I don’t want to take anything for granted. You know everybody here in New Jersey says you either run unopposed or you run scared, so I’m going to keep running scared and make sure we do every single thing that we can to let people know what we want to do for New Jersey,” said Sherrill.

Three other Democrats are running: Tamara Harris, Mitchell Corbert and Mark Washburne. But, Sherrill has party backing and has raised over a million dollars. And she’s already figuring out how to run against some new Republican.

“You know, I think any Republican is going to have to run on the agenda coming out of Washington. And that agenda has proven again and again to be bad for New Jersey. So we see a tax on our health care, rising premiums, a tax plan that hits New Jersey particularly hard, especially the 11th District. And then reneging on the promise to invest in our infrastructure and our Gateway Tunnel,” said Sherrill.

Webber sounds optimistic.

“For as much as we’ve supported Rodney for so many years and people were happy to do it, there was no sense of urgency because Rodney was safe. Now that the district’s in play, the Republican Party and other grassroots activists realize they’ve got to get energized, they’ve got to get active and they’re committed to keeping this seat,” said Webber.

New Jersey loses something with Rodney Frelinghuysen’s retirement. As Appropriations chairman, he’s been in a position to help the state for years to come. The silver lining here is that come November, the 11th District will have a fresh face.