Advertising war already started during intense election season

Tom MacArthur vs. Andy Kim

New Jersey has become a focal point in the battle for majority control of the U.S. House, with four of the state’s five Republican-controlled seats considered to be in real peril of flipping.

Among those, the 3rd District race between incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur and Democrat challenger Andy Kim may wind up as the most competitive.

A Monmouth University poll of the race this month placed the two candidates neck and neck, prompting the Cook Political Report and other election prognosticators to upgrade their ratings of the race to the most competitive status.

The poll’s release coincided with the start of a television advertising blitz by both campaigns, as well as outside political action committees that are spending tons to try to influence the race.

Kim’s ad — the first the campaign has aired on television — highlighted Kim’s past service as a security advisor to President Barack Obama and to Gens. David Petraeus and John Allen and his pledge not to accept any contributions from corporate PACs.

“Service is a representative who puts you first and won’t take corporate money, and that’s exactly who I’ll be,” Kim says at the end of the 30-second spot, which began airing Aug. 23.

MacArthur, who is running for his third term as the district’s representative, accused Kim of stretching the truth with one remarks: that he became a national security advisor for both Republican and Democratic presidents, a reference to his time on the National Security Council in the Obama White House, as well as his first government post with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2005 during Republican George W. Bush’s administration.

Kim’s LinkedIn page specifies that he served as a Conflict Management Specialist with the agency that year, but MacArthur’s campaign questioned how Kim, who was 22 and an International Relations student at Oxford at the time, could equate that post to a national security advisor.

“Trying to equate his brief time spent working in government at age 22 to his self-proclaimed ‘time in the Situation Room’ during the Obama administration is like comparing apples and watermelons,” MacArthur strategist Chris Russell said in a statement after the ad’s release.

Kim’s campaign responded that Kim was an intern with USAID in 2004 and was hired as a full-time conflict specialist with the agency in 2005. He worked for less than a year in the Africa bureau, dealing with conflict-related crises across the continent, including national security concerns related to terrorism in Somalia and genocide and child soldiers in Sudan and Uganda, the campaign said.

MacArthur’s campaign also released its own television ad shortly after Kim’s, a negative one that accused Kim of allowing a Democratic ally to embellish his background as a civilian advisor to Petraeus and Allen in Afghanistan. The ad featured a clip of a campaign event with Kim and Hoboken Mayor Ravinder Bhalla introducing Kim as someone who has “gone overseas to literally fight and sacrifice his life.” The ad then notes that Kim was “never in the military.”

It is the latest attack by MacArthur’s campaign about Kim’s civilian service in Afghanistan, which Kim previously defended with statements from former Department of State and military officials, including retired Marine Col. James B. Seaton III and former Secretary of State John Kerry.

“An attack on Andy Kim’s service is disrespectful to all Americans who sacrifice in service to country,” Kerry said in a July statement reported by Politico. “I’m more than a little surprised to see the campaign of someone who has never visited Afghanistan attack the expertise of someone who volunteered to work there.”

“Congressman MacArthur is back to playing politics with national security,” Kim campaign spokesman Forrest Rilling added Friday. “He is desperate to avoid addressing the $400,000 he took from prescription drug and insurance companies, and how he wrote a bill raising the cost of prescription drugs, jacking up premiums on older Americans, and cutting protections for people with pre-existing conditions.”

The recent ad blitz in the district also included two spots attacking MacArthur that were paid for by the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC linked to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The first ad featured clips from MacArthur’s famous April 2017 town hall in Willingboro where he was confronted by residents about his leading role in writing a GOP health care bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The bill was advanced out of the U.S. House but ultimately died in the Senate.

The second ad focused on the GOP’s successful tax reform law and its $10,000 cap on the state and local taxes deduction claimed by many New Jersey homeowners due to the state’s steeply rising income tax and notoriously high property taxes. The ad spotlights MacArthur’s status as the only member of the New Jersey congressional delegation to vote in favor of the law.

PAC press secretary Hannah Blatt said the group has purchased some $435,000 in air time to ensure the spots get seen by voters across the district. The group’s buy comes after the Republican-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund began airing ads attacking Kim.

Bob Menendez vs. Bob Hugin

The early advertising war isn’t just limited to the state’s House races. The statewide contest for Democrat Bob Menendez’s U.S. Senate seat is also featured in several new ads from both campaigns and outside groups.

The race between Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator since 2006, and Hugin, a Marine veteran who led a New Jersey pharmaceutical company for close to 30 years, is surprisingly close at this stage, with a recent Quinnipiac University poll putting the incumbent six percentage points up with less than three months left.

The poll followed months of advertising by Hugin focused on Menendez’s ethics scandal involving federal charges the Democrat used his office to provide favors to Florida ophthalmologist Solomon Melgan in return for political contributions, private flights and Caribbean vacations. His trial last year ended with a hung jury and prosecutors opted not to retry him, but the Senate Ethics Committee ended up admonishing him for his conduct and gifts from Melgen, whom Menendez described as a longtime friend.

Menendez responded with his campaign’s first two television ads last month, both referencing Hugin’s role as CEO of Celgene, when the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company raised the prices of a cancer drug it invented called Revlimid.

“I’m fighting for equal pay and affordable health care; he’s for corporate tax breaks,” Menendez says in his first spot. “I’m working to lower prescription costs; Hugin gouged cancer patients.”

Hugin, a multimillionaire who donated $15 million of his personal wealth to his campaign, responded with two new ads that have already begun airing.

The first spot mentions his background in the Marines and his calls for a “radical transformation” of health care, and “compassionate immigration reform.” The second focused on prescription drug prices and referenced Celgene’s patient assistance program and Menendez’s receipt of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical company PACs.

“Fact. Bob Hugin helped hundreds of thousands of patients access and afford their medicines,” the ad said. “It’s Menendez who took nearly a million dollars from big pharma.”

The Burlington County Freeholders

The national spotlight might be on the congressional races, but the contest that will likely have the biggest impact on Burlington County residents is down the ballot in the face-off for two county freeholder seats.

The race pits incumbent Republicans Kate Gibbs and Linda Hughes against Democratic challengers George Youngkin and Felicia Hopson and carries enormous stakes for both parties as the winners will determine majority control of the freeholder board, which is currently split 3-2 with the GOP in the majority.

A win by either Youngkin or Hopson will swing control to the Democrats for the first time in over 40 years.

The Democrats like their chances as the party has an expanding advantage in the number of registered voters in the county, now at 115,964 voters, compared to 77,794 registered Republicans. Unaffiliated voters still outnumber both parties at 119,107 voters, according to the state Division of Elections.

Those numbers, plus increased interest due to the congressional races, put the Democrats in the unusual position of being almost favorites in the county races, although party leaders stressed that the candidates are campaigning hard to meet and talk to as many voters as possible.

“The idea of a wave is out there, but you have to make your own luck,” Mount Laurel Democratic Chairman Michael Muller said Friday. “You may have voters who really want to weigh in on the congressional races, but you don’t want them to stop there. You have to have candidates run strong at the county and local level too if you’re going to take advantage.”

Republicans have yet to launch an advertising barrage in the county races, which also includes a contest for surrogate between incumbent Republican Tim Tyler and former Freeholder Joanne Schwartz, but they seem poised to do so in such a crucial election year.

Voters can expect to hear a lot about the GOP freeholders’ record on taxes and spending, as well as the new initiatives launched by county government this year to make $20 million in county funds available as grants for school security improvements and to spend $12.5 million to launch traffic relief projects in northern Burlington County.

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