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Rodney Frelinghuysen Won’t Seek 13th Term

Appropriations chairman was facing first competitive re-election in years

New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen was already a Democratic target this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen was already a Democratic target this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 5:15 p.m. | New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, announced Monday he will not run for re-election in November.

He is the eighth Republican committee chairman to announce his retirement.

The northern New Jersey congressman, first elected in 1994, was a Democratic target for the first time in years. The 11th District narrowly voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and even more narrowly for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy last fall, according to calculations by Decision Desk HQ. 

It’s the kind of wealthy, highly-educated suburban seat Democrats are hoping to flip this year. 

Watch: Which Members of Congress Might Not Be Back in 2019?

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Two Democrats running in Frelinghuysen’s district raised about three times as much as he did during the third quarter that ended Sept. 30, and his Morristown office has been the site of weekly protests from constituents angry that he’s refused to hold in-person town halls.

Frelinghuysen also earned negative headlines for alerting a local bank that one of its employees was a “ringleader” for NJ 11th for Change, an activist group that has been working against him. The woman later resigned, citing the political pressure she felt at work after the letter. 

NJ 11th for Change, which has held “empty chair” town halls and “Fridays with Frelinghuysen” protests outside his district office, called his retirement “the culmination of a year-long accountability campaign.”

“For over a year, we asked nothing more than an opportunity to meet with our Congressman. Instead, Frelinghuysen hid from us, refused all invitations, and actively avoided interactions with those in the 11th District — the very people he was supposed to represent in Washington,” the group said in a statement Monday.

“Frelinghuysen’s retirement is an example of what can happen when engaged citizens challenge the status quo, raise their voices, and take action,” the group added.

Frelinghuysen had been squeezed in recent months between the demands of his constituents and leadership. He voted against the GOP tax bill late last year, which curtailed the state and local tax deduction. His constituents are among the top beneficiaries of that tax break.

His lackluster third-quarter fundraising — he pulled in only $157,000, notably low for an Appropriations chairman from an affluent district — fueled plenty of retirement rumors. He did better in the fourth quarter, raking in $369,000 according to his fundraising report just filed with the Federal Election Commission.

He’s the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress and one of the wealthiest lawmakers. He won re-election in 2016 by 19 points.

Toss-up race

Democrats are hoping an open seat will give them a greater shot at picking up the seat. Navy veteran and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill announced her candidacy last May. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added her to its Red to Blue program earlier this month, and she has the backing of EMILY’s List.  

She stayed away from political gloating Monday and thanked Frelinghuysen for his service.

“While Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen and I did not agree on many issues, as a fellow veteran I deeply respect his service to our country and to this community. From serving in Vietnam, to the New Jersey legislature, to the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Frelinghuysen dedicated himself to protecting this country,” Sherrill said in a statement.

Soon after, her campaign sent out a fundraising email telling supporters, “we HAVE to be prepared.”

Sherrill announced Monday evening she’d raised $486,000 in the fourth quarter and ended 2017 with $822,000 in the bank.

Republicans are optimistic about holding on to the 11th District, which has long backed the GOP at the local and federal level. 

“This district has been held by a Republican since the 1980’s, and we plan to keep it that way in November,” Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Monday morning.

Republicans who could run for the 11th District include tax lawyer Rosemary Becchi, a former Senate Finance Committee staffer who serves on the board of Running Start, which is dedicated to getting more women to run for public office. 

GOP operatives also mention state Assemblyman Jay Webber, state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio and state Assemblyman Tony Bucco Jr. as potential candidates.  

Following Frelinghuysen’s announcement, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed its rating for the 11th District contest from Likely Republican to Toss-up

Parting thoughts

Frelinghuysen assumed the helm of the Appropriations Committee at the beginning of the 115th Congress.

“In my remaining year as chairman, I am determined to finish the FY18 bills and pass our FY19 bills through regular order,” he said in his Monday statement.

“Every member, Republican and Democrat, will continue to have ample opportunity to directly impact the Congressional power of the purse and decide the best and highest use of limited taxpayer money.  This will require — and I will happily devote — all my energies to this task,” he added.  

In announcing his retirement, he urged young people to consider public service. 

“Public service is an incredible way to turn your convictions into something that serves the greater good and to do it alongside people from every walk of life and background.  That has certainly been my experience here in this House, and during my Army service in Vietnam,” Frelinghuysen said.