It has been 12 and 14 years, respectively, since I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District. In 2008, I won a two-way primary to become the Republican Party nominee and in 2010, I won a four-way primary to likewise represent the GOP.
In both cases, I lost the general election rather decisively. The margin in 2008 was 72% – 26%, and two years later, it was 63% – 35%. And yet, I received more votes – and a greater percentage of votes – than any Republican challenger since 1976. I also earned the endorsements of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008 and the Courier-Post in both 2008 and 2010. That being said, my twin defeats demonstrated just how difficult it is to beat an entrenched incumbent in a heavily Democratic district.
My opponent in both races was Rep. Rob Andrews, a 9-term incumbent in 2008 and a 10-term incumbent in 2010. At the time, NJ-1 was rated by the Cook Political Report as a +14 Democrat district, which means that the Democratic candidate for Congress was expected to outperform his party’s presidential candidate by 14 points. That’s an extremely tall order, not unlike Sisyphus being sentenced by Zeus to rolling a boulder uphill for all eternity, making NJ-1 one of the safest Democratic districts in the entire country.
Enough about history, although I will refer to my two campaigns throughout this piece for the purpose of context. This article is about the present and more importantly, the future. Specifically, how can the GOP flip NJ-1… or is it simply an impossible dream more akin to Don Quixote tilting at windmills?
With two hard-fought races under my belt and the benefit of a decade of reflection, here are my suggestions for the local Republican Party if they truly want to win that seat in my lifetime.
First, find a candidate who will work his or her tail off. Because I lacked widespread name recognition outside of my evangelical base and the funds necessary to mount a serious media campaign, I knew I would have to outwork Rob – or, in 2008, the shadow candidate, his wife Camille. And so, I personally knocked on 10,000 doors throughout the district. It cost me 10 pounds and several pairs of shoes each election cycle, but I was determined to interact with as many voters as possible. That meant going straight from my 8-hour per day job as a prison minister to my 4-hour per day job as a congressional candidate. And weekends were filled with fairs, festivals, parades, and more door-to-door campaigning from sunup to sundown.
Second, convince more people to support your campaign financially. In order to win a congressional seat in a major media market like the Philadelphia suburbs, a candidate must raise at least $2 million (in 2010 dollars). My problem was that people saw NJ-1 as an unwinnable race and so, they largely refused to open their checkbooks… which, using their circular logic, made it an unwinnable race. As a result, I was only able to raise $30,000 in 2008 and $60,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, Andrews sat on a campaign war chest in excess of $2 million – and could have raised more if needed.
This financial gulf was especially problematic in the waning weeks of my 2008 campaign. For those with long memories, Camille Andrews withdrew her placeholder candidacy on September 3rd and, a day later, Rob entered the race despite promising voters in the spring that he wouldn’t. However, after being handily defeated by Frank Lautenberg in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Rob broke his promise and the newspapers excoriated him for doing so. In fact, the Inquirer called him a “Bald-faced Liar” on their editorial page, which led them to endorse me the following month.
If only I had had the financial means to capitalize on that turn of events, things may have turned out differently. But because I didn’t, the best I could do was to launch a new website (www.RobLied.com), plant yard signs echoing that theme across the district, and call him out publicly on TV and radio as well as at campaign events, including a high-profile press conference outside Campbell’s Field in Camden.
For this congressional seat to be winnable, Republican donors – and the county GOP organizations – must start digging deep financially.
Third, the press has to be more honest and engaged. In 2008, I was tipped off that Rob Andrews had secured a $600,000 federal earmark for Rutgers University in Camden. Not just for Rutgers, mind you, but for its Law School. And not just for the Law School but for the Office of Admissions, headed by Camille Andrews. After verifying the claim, I immediately contacted the newspapers, but only one reporter at the Inquirer asked Rob about the conflict of interest. He denied any impropriety and her editors promptly told her to drop the story.
Over the next two years, I found numerous examples of Andrews illegally tapping his campaign account for personal expenses. Among them were an all-expenses paid family vacation to Scotland, where the Andrews clan stayed at a $2,500 per night hotel under the pretense of attending a potential donor’s wedding. Rob, ever the cheapskate, even charged his campaign for the wedding gift, a crystal bowl from Tiffany’s.
Other campaign abuses included another two-week family vacation in Ocean City, a large contribution to the Walnut Street Theater where Camille served on the board and his younger daughter “coincidentally” received a featured role as a dancer, and multiple excursions to California. These trips – which included stays in four-star hotels, meals at five-star restaurants, and multiple limousine rides – were billed as fundraising events. However, they suspiciously coincided with singing auditions for Andrews’ older daughter, who accompanied him on the junkets.
Despite my repeated efforts to get the media to cover Andrews’ trail of corruption, not a single news outlet would touch it. They couldn’t care less that he had billed his campaign for a Valentine’s Day dinner with Camille (how romantic) or a Mother’s Day lunch with his wife and mother… and yet, there it was in his FEC report for all the world to see.
Finally, in 2012, CREW, a Washington-based watchdog organization, looked into the matter. In addition to naming Andrews one of the 10 Most Corrupt Politicians in Washington, they found his misuse of campaign funds to be so egregious that they forwarded the information to the House Ethics Committee. In turn, the committee ruled that the allegations were credible and recommended that the full House investigate Andrews’ sordid behavior. Rather than face possible censure or expulsion, Andrews resigned in disgrace in 2014, his cover story being that he had been offered a job in the private sector that was too good to turn down.
If only the media had done their due diligence and investigated Andrews’ campaign finances sooner, especially when I had offered them rock solid proof of his improprieties on a silver platter. That being said, maybe there is now a young reporter in the South Jersey area who is looking to make a name for himself and would be willing to make a deep dive into Don Norcross’ campaign (and personal) finances. If not, do the digging yourself and broadcast your findings as far as wide as possible. Trust me, there’s some dirt there if you are willing to look hard enough.
Fourth, minority voters need to stop voting instinctively for the Democratic candidate. In 2008, I contacted the head of the leading Latino organization in Camden and asked him to take me on a walking tour of the city. He was dumbfounded that I would make such a request because, in his words, every other candidate and officeholder simply “drove through Camden to the waterfront for a photo op.” I spent an entire day with this man, asking questions and hearing his concerns. He promised his full support… only to endorse Andrews a few months later.
Two years later, I launched my second campaign at the childhood home of my mother in Fairview and ended it at the boyhood home of my dad in Cramer Hill. Despite my deep concern for that city – and my decades of ministry to minority inmates and at-risk youth – I still lost Camden by 10,000 votes.
Fifth, voters need to demand more from their elected officials. I remember knocking on a door in Palmyra in 2008, shortly after Rob Andrews had re-entered the race and the Inquirer had called him a liar. The homeowner informed me that she was supporting Rob and I asked if it bothered her that he had broken his promise. “All politicians lie,” she said matter-of-factly.
“But shouldn’t you expect more?” I asked. “In fact, shouldn’t you demand more?” She never responded, but I am fairly certain that she voted for Andrews on Election Day.
Sixth, be creative, be aggressive, and think outside the box. With nothing to lose, I hosted campaign events – an anti-Obamacare rally and a free pork sandwich giveaway to highlight Andrews’ frivolous spending – in the parking lot of his campaign office. I also sought endorsements from popular sports figures and got one, Curt Shilling, a former Phillies icon. And in 2010, I even opened a campaign office of my own in Rob’s hometown of Haddon Heights, just blocks from his house. I was determined to get inside his head… and I think I did.
I also tried my best to ride the coattails of then popular officeholders, seeking and receiving endorsements from Gov. Chris Christie – I actually wrote the press release myself and his campaign simply signed off on it – and a few others like State Senator Tom Kean and Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco. And when Bill Bennett invited congressional candidates to call into his radio show, I did… and was promptly interviewed in front of a nationwide audience.
Speaking of creativity, one of my favorite campaign ploys was printing up baseball cards featuring Rob Andrews’ congressional “batting average”. At that time, he had introduced in excess of 500 bills, which was more than twice as many as any other member of Congress, but only two had passed. That gave Andrews a dismal legislative average of about .003, the lowest in the entire House. With the help of some dedicated volunteers, I visited Citizens Bank Park during a Phillies game and placed those baseball cards on the windshields of every car in the parking lot with a New Jersey license plate.
Because no one expects you to win, you can afford to roll the dice. Maybe, just maybe, your ingenuity will be rewarded with some media coverage or national exposure.
Finally, take on Don Norcross head-on with no holds barred. Don was a high school classmate of mine, as was Steve Sweeney. He and I also played JV soccer together. Nice guy then, but more of a party animal than a serious student, and not the brightest bulb in the pack. Likewise, the Norcross name, while still carrying substantial clout, has lost some of its luster in recent years.
More importantly, in his eight years in Congress, Don Norcross has only seen one bill that he introduced enacted into law… and that was to rename a post office in Deptford. That’s a pretty lousy legislative record and should make an easy target for a serious Republican challenger.
Better yet, contrast Norcross’s legislative record – or lack thereof – with that of Rep. Chris Smith. During his 42 years of representing NJ-4, Smith has seen 62 of his sponsored bills enacted into law. That’s more than one bill per year, many of them dealing with human rights and other substantive issues, compared to Norcross’ lone post office bill.
If ever there was a time to make substantial inroads in NJ-1, it is now. With an historically unpopular and increasingly senile president in the White House… and the Democrat Party having been overtaken by the radical Progressive Left… we must strike while the iron is hot. Not only in 2022, but also in 2024 and beyond.
If I think of some other suggestions for turning the tide in NJ-1, I will be glad to write a follow-up article. In the meantime, despite now living 1,100 miles south of the district, I am available to the county GOP organizations and Republican candidates alike for some good, old-fashioned brain-picking.
Good luck and Godspeed!