Before he sat down to breakfast recently in a hotel ballroom in Mount Laurel, Tom MacArthur reached out to shake hands with the Democratic opponent who was sharing the head table with him. The 100-day clock had just started ticking toward an election that had seemed safe for MacArthur a year earlier—and this was his first public encounter with Andy Kim, the man trying to unseat him.
The event was billed as a candidates’ forum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, but when the bacon and eggs were cleared and MacArthur and Kim took their places at the podiums, it unfolded like a debate. Many of the chamber members already knew MacArthur, but in his introduction, he reminded them of the connection they shared.
“After 30 years in business and four years in Congress, I’m still a businessman at heart,” he said. He reminded them, too, that the national Chamber of Commerce backed him.
MacArthur was the chairman and CEO of an insurance and risk management company and the mayor of Randolph Township in Morris County before a seat opened in 2014 in the 3rd Congressional District, where he owned a vacation home. He spent $5 million of his own money and won the seat easily. He defended the seat even more easily in 2016.
But then came the political cyclone unleashed by Donald Trump, which has swept New Jersey—blue New Jersey, with its late presidential primaries and usually negligible influence on the national political landscape—into the pitched battle for control of the House. If Democrats gain 24 seats in the House, they will gain control; four of the races where polls say Democrats could replace Republicans are in New Jersey.
One of the vulnerable Republican incumbents is MacArthur, who has allied himself more closely with Trump than any of his colleagues in the New Jersey delegation. He was the only New Jersey Republican to vote for Trump’s tax bill, and he was instrumental in getting the health care repeal bill passed through the House. (It later died in the Senate.)
At the forum in Mount Laurel, on the western edge of MacArthur’s district, he defended both of those votes, but also used the word bipartisan often and cited the issues on which he has disagreed with the president. A full 46 minutes passed before he said the name that makes partisans seethe at each other across the barricades. He uttered the president’s name only twice more after that. Kim—a Rhodes scholar and Obama administration official—never mentioned Trump at all.
Sometimes what’s not said says the most.
The 3rd District cuts a wide swath across the state’s midsection, stretching from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s tinted blue in the west—in the Philadelphia suburbs of Burlington County—but turns red as it traverses the Pine Barrens into Ocean County, which voted for Donald Trump by a higher margin (64 percent) than any other county in New Jersey in 2016. The district’s breadth forces candidates to buy TV ads in the nation’s most expensive media market (New York) to reach voters in Ocean County, while also buying ads in the fourth most expensive market (Philadelphia) to reach Burlington County.
Three weeks before Mount Laurel, in a sprawling industrial park in the riverside town of Florence, MacArthur had headlined a home-district event that let him highlight one of the issues he talks about often: the opioid crisis and the 147 Americans whose lives it claims every day, an entire Vietnam War’s worth of casualties each year.
“Every one of those stories is a person, every one of those stories is a sea of heartache,” he said to a small audience at the Express Scripts Mail-Order Pharmacy facility. “It’s stolen dreams. It’s lives that were cut short.”
MacArthur didn’t bring up the president’s name there either, but he did cite Senator Cory Booker and Representative Donald Norcross, New Jersey Democrats who are his legislative allies in the opioid war. MacArthur touted his own work as co-chair of the House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force and the package of 50 bills passed the month before, and he lingered to talk with a handful of recovering addicts and the families of overdose victims.
A little over a year earlier, MacArthur had presided over an event in his district that took a different turn. “It was brutal,” MacArthur said later about a May 2017 town hall meeting in Willingboro at which hundreds of constituents assailed him for almost five hours for his efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act. Some may have thought him indifferent to those with health issues. They may not have known that his mother had died of cancer when he was four and that his special-needs daughter had died when she was just 11. “It was a difficult night for me, physically and emotionally,” he tells New Jersey Monthly.
When the Republican health care bill looked dead that spring, MacArthur offered an amendment that opponents said would have weakened one of the ACA’s most popular provisions: the coverage of patients with preexisting conditions. The amended bill then narrowly passed the House.
Andy Kim says he heard about House passage of the health bill from a TV news broadcast in a doctor’s waiting room just after learning that the baby his wife was carrying, their second, was underweight and might face complications.
“As I’m watching that, whose face do I see pop up on the screen and talk about how he’s the one who got this bill passed through the House of Representatives?” Kim told about 60 people at a campaign event in a Pine Beach backyard two evenings before the Mount Laurel forum.
That was the moment, Kim said, that convinced him to run. He didn’t talk about Trump as dusk fell and the string of lights brightened under the white tent, but he told the story of his immigrant Korean family—his mother, a nurse; his father, a polio survivor who grew up in an orphanage and came to America to earn a PhD. in molecular biology. Kim studied political science at the University of Chicago and earned a doctorate in international relations as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He worked for the State Department, the Defense Department—including a stint in Afghanistan as an adviser to the commanding generals there—and then as Iraq director for the National Security Council in the Obama White House.
“When I worked in Afghanistan, nobody asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican,” he told the Pine Beach group.
Kim used that line again at the Mount Laurel forum, which was in the same hotel where he attended his high school prom. (Kim grew up in nearby Marlton and moved back there from Washington last year.) In answering questions, he kept hitting that bipartisan note, as did MacArthur. Both candidates claimed a stamp of approval from Senator Richard Lugar, the famously bipartisan Republican from Indiana: Kim worked for the Lugar-chaired Foreign Relations Committee while in graduate school, while MacArthur ranked 44 out of 427 House members in the most recent Bipartisan Index compiled by the Lugar Center at Georgetown University.
But each portrayed the other as hailing from the farthest reaches of their parties. “That tax bill was a disaster for New Jersey,” Kim said about the bill that, by capping state and local tax deductions at $10,000, is expected to hit high-tax states like New Jersey particularly hard. “Every single member of Congress from New Jersey voted against it except one.”
MacArthur argued that the bill would end up reducing taxes for 80 percent of New Jerseyans, and that he was instrumental in winning back at least a partial deduction from a Republican leadership that wanted to eliminate it entirely. “What would another no vote from New Jersey have added?” he asked. “We got the $10,000 restored because of me and a very small handful of others, and I will always be proud of that accomplishment.”
And he had a question for the audience. “How many of you have started resistance organizations?” he asked. “I don’t see any hands up. But after President Trump was elected, my opponent did start one. It was called RISE Stronger, dedicated to resisting the president in every way possible.” (Kim later described it as “a Facebook group where people talk about what they’re concerned about and what things they want to share that other people can do.”)
In interviews away from the forum, the candidates were even more strident. “He stood next to Trump at Bedminster several weeks after the health care repeal was passed, and he received hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations at that event,” Kim says, referring to a MacArthur fundraiser the president hosted at his golf club. “He is one of Trump’s strongest supporters in the country, and for him to try to say anything else is just a lie.”
And MacArthur on Kim: “I have an opponent who’s trying to look and sound moderate, but his history is anything but moderate,” he says. “He’s a radical who wants to resist everything Trump does.”
Whether the candidates say the name or not, the vote for Congress this midterm is at least partly a referendum on the presidency. “Trump has created the extraordinary levels of Democratic enthusiasm that has put these seats in play,” says David Wasserman, House editor and political analyst for the Cook Political Report, which shifted its rating of the race from “likely Republican” to “Lean Republican” in April, as Kim’s fundraising caught up with MacArthur’s. By August, it was calling it a “Republican toss-up.”
“Because the Trump motivator is out there, you don’t have to mention it,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “Those who are motivated to vote Democratic because they don’t like Trump don’t need to be reminded.”
A Monmouth University poll in early August found the race essentially tied, with MacArthur at 41 percent and Kim at 40. “What we’re seeing is that Trump supporters are not necessarily coming out in large numbers to support the president by voting for a member of Congress as a proxy,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which has been tracking special elections and key districts nationally. “Whereas Democrats who are doing that are the opposite. They are coming out to vote against Trump.”
In such a volatile midterm election season, that could quickly change. A Trump rally in Ocean County, for instance, could energize Republicans. “I’m hoping not to have that need,” MacArthur says about a potential campaign visit by the president. “But the administration has been helpful to me, and I think they probably will be helpful again if I need it.”
Or MacArthur could write a big check for a late flurry of TV ads. “I’ll keep my own counsel on that,” he says when asked if he plans to contribute to his campaign, as he has before.
What he does acknowledge, though, is how different this race has been from his first two. “I get it that people are worked up over issues that have nothing to do with me,” MacArthur says. “That’s the nature of politics right now.”
Kevin Coyne is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment