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U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose district runs from the tip of Cape May to Brigantine’s northern inlet, and along the coast of Delaware Bay from Cape May to well above the Delaware Memorial Bridge, has about as much shoreline in his district as anybody in Congress. He’s a conservative Republican, well liked in the district, with almost 20 years of Congressional experience under his belt.
In 2012 he was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote, and sits on a more-or-less permanent war chest of over $1 million. This is the profile of a “safe seat.” His district, however, is slowly drifting out from under him as Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates carry it in federal elections. Al Gore won it 66/44 over George W. Bush; four years later Bush as president barely squeaked by Kerry 50/49; Obama trounced McCain here in 2008 and Romney last year; Democratic Sen. Menendez carried it in 2012, as did Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in his earlier campaign. It is a Democratic district with a Republican Congressman.
This is the sort of thing Washington politicians keep an eye on, no matter how large one’s war chest or how weak his opposition. Every politician knows the pattern; king one day and gone tomorrow. Charlie Sandman was considered unbeatable until he stubbornly defended Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal far past the point when Nixon was remotely defensible. He paid for that misguided party loyalty by losing heavily to Bill Hughes in ‘74.
Hughes made it comfortably Democratic for 20 years until he retired to an Ambassadorship. LoBiondo came in with the Republican tide and won the open seat in 1994 when the Republicans won the House in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” sweep, He’s been there ever since, carefully tending to his constituents, avoiding controversy, and rarely straying from the strict party line in the House. Such diligence has worked in his favor.
But times change and voters drift and demographics shift. Every now and then something catches the politicians by surprise. I suspect we may be witnessing a shaping wave that could cost LoBiondo his seat next time. There are two currents coming together with enough force to threaten his grip. One is Superstorm Sandy disaster relief; the other is gun control.
When, a week or so ago the House ran late to pass the “fiscal cliff” legislation, one more bill was set to be passed. That was a $60 billion disaster relief measure eagerly awaited by New Jersey’s coastal communities, relief that depended on the votes of LoBiondo’s conservative Republican colleagues. He counted on that help, but his friends in the Tea Party set betrayed him, allegedly on the grounds that the federal government had no proper role to play in such relief. Their foolishness and hypocrisy was so shocking, the next day LoBiondo went to the well of the House and, in full fury, lambasted his own Republican side for their betrayal. It was a helluva moment for the normally quiet backbencher. Later that week the Republicans yielded to such outrage and passed a $9 billion bill with a promise of much more when Congress reconvened.
The delay quelled the incipient Republican mutiny, but at a high cost to LoBiondo’s storm-devastated constituents. In Brigantine, for example, site of the famous Obama-Christie love fest, one crucial element of the storm damage is mold. When your house floods and the water recedes, dampened sheetrock, lumber and insulation start growing mold. If not dried out, the mold creeps up the walls, necessitating ripping out and replacing more and more sheetrock, flooring, and the like. A first-aid measure is to get a de-humidifier going as soon as electric power is restored. One Brigantine homeowner did that, and removed 100 gallons over a 10 day period. That doesn’t kill the mold, but it does limit the damage.
So time matters in storm relief.
When LoBiondo’s colleagues stabbed him in the back, they may have effectively sentenced storm-damaged homeowners to another several weeks of mold growth. That is the sort of thing homeowners resent. Many are scrambling to find other temporary quarters, get the kids back in school and replace lost rugs, furniture and personal possessions. It will cost the Republican Party dearly next election, although how dearly is yet to be learned. Sometimes party loyalty demands too much. It depends, I think, on whether Republican stalwarts like LoBiondo can rein in their Tea Party colleagues before they indulge in more such crazy antics. And whether another storm comes along before they do.
And then there’s gun control. LoBiondo is a lifelong supporter of gun rights; rated “A” by the increasingly extremist National Rifle Association. Thus far it has not cost him many votes. Now it very well might.
The horrors of the Sandy Hook school massacre have convinced the nation something must be done. Longtime opponents of gun control are unshakeable in their beliefs, but there is absolute revulsion among all Americans at the thought of little kids riddled with bullets from assault weapons. It would be wise for the NRA to compromise, but they are owned lock, stock and barrel by the gun manufacturers and dare not change. LoBiondo, who has always stood resolutely by the NRA, is now, like Charlie Sandman before him, at a point where he must quit defending the indefensible, or risk his seat in Congress.
Were it only Sandy the Superstorm, or only Sandy Hook the slaughter, LoBiondo might not have cause to worry. Perhaps he can survive both. If no other storm or slaughter comes along he and other seaboard Republicans may be able to cruise along their present course.
Like the Titanic.