Congressional candidate Martin Hewitt’s first “town hall” only drew a dozen people to Morristown on Tuesday.
Still, that’s one more town hall than Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) has held since 2013. Hewitt is hoping enough voters feel sufficiently neglected by the 12-term incumbent—and aggrieved at his support for President Trump’s agenda— to support him instead on primary day.
Specifically, Democratic- and unaffiliated voters.
If registered Dems switch their status to unaffiliated over the next few weeks, they can show up on primary day in June with other independents, declare themselves Republicans, and oust Frelinghuysen. Victory should require far fewer votes in the primary, where turnouts are low, than in the November general election.
That’s Hewitt’s game plan, anyway.
“If people are tired of Frelinghuysen, you have two opportunities: One in the primary, and two, in the general,” Hewitt said at the Revolution beer hall on South Street.
The 58-year-old lawyer is a self-described moderate who has migrated from Democrat to Independent to Republican over the last year. This week he moved to the 11th District, from his East Brunswick home to a Morris Township apartment.
Hewitt was joined Tuesday by GOP candidates Lindsay Brown, who is challenging Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.), and Dana Wefer, running for Senate. They have formed the “F.I.R.E. Caucus”—Fed-up Independents Reforming Everything.
They’re trying to recruit FIRE candidates in North Carolina, Texas and Indiana, too.
“If we can get 10 or 12 people elected, we can really shape the dialogue” in Washington, particularly as swing votes in the Senate, said Wefer, a former Democratic candidate for state Assembly and Morris County freeholder.
Explaining she got fed up with the “corrupt” Democratic party—from its “rigged” presidential primary to New Jersey’s political machine—Wefer said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) “has got to go” and her best shot is from the GOP side.
“We’re just normal people who share the values of most people we live around,” said Wefer, a 35-year-old attorney now living in Wood-Ridge. “Most of these politicians are out of touch.”
Fielding questions, Hewitt said Americans should not have to choose between healthcare and new roads. National priorities should be set, and costs estimated, before revamping the tax system. Education is paramount, and college tuition should be subsidized in exchange for AmeriCorps-type public service. Immigration deserves debate—with immigrants involved in the discussion.
“Trump’s right about one thing: We need to build a wall,” Hewitt concluded. “A wall around neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and around hatred and prejudice.”
But can a little-known candidate with no war chest mount a viable campaign against Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and wealthy scion of one New Jersey’s great political families, who never has faced a serious election challenge?
John and Gemma Potts of Pompton Plains hope so.
“Most of the people I know are fed up with Rodney. He does not hold town hall meetings,” said John Potts, 58, a lifelong Republican. Potts said his mother’s rest home has not invited Frelinghuysen back to speak since he refused to take questions there last year.
“He’s been voting for all of Trump’s stuff. I won’t have anything to do with him,” continued John Potts. “A lot of people blindly vote Republican or Democrat. It’s the moderates in both parties that are going to have to fix this.”
Gemma Potts called Frelinghuysen his own worst enemy. “He votes the far right party line. He thinks attending a pancake breakfast and meeting high school students is adequate…There’s no benefit anymore to keeping him,” said the retired teacher.
The Cook Political Report has handicapped Frelinghuysen’s chances as a “toss-up,” citing shifting district demographics, an ethics complaint, and the Congressman’s initial support for a tax bill he later opposed as bad for New Jersey.
“I think Martin has a chance here,” if he expends enough shoe leather, said attorney Pam Peterson, who attended Seton Hall Law School with Hewitt.
The GOP has been hijacked, she contends, by “social radicals who want to take us back to the ‘50s. Most Republican women don’t want to go back to the ‘50s.”
America is good, the Bloomfield resident added. “But we need two sensible parties.”
Stacey Gregg, a lifelong Democrat from Rockaway, now considers herself an independent, after sexual misconduct scandals by prominent Democrats in Congress. Though leaning toward Democratic newcomer Mikie Sherrill, she liked what she heard from Hewitt.
“I think he’s a straight shooter,” said Gregg, who is active in NJ 11th for Change.
Debbie Harris of Hanover is the sole caregiver for her ailing mother, and worries about the cost of healthcare. She cannot envision voting for any GOP candidates.
“I’m very unhappy with the Republican party. They don’t stand for issues I care about,” said Harris.
Yet she decided to give Hewitt a listen. “I want to hear everyone. I want to be ultra-informed.”