At the Heart of Bordentown Tavern, a neighborhood spot with a curved wooden bar, owner Mary Buhrer prides herself on being able to adapt. When her customers started changing, she added such dishes as tofu nuggets and meatless burgers to the menu.
“We have a lot of young people moving to this area,” she said earlier this month, her restaurant now outfitted with tented sidewalk tables because of the coronavirus. “A lot of vegetarians. People who want to raise their children in a walkable neighborhood. People who care about the environment.”
A city of fewer than 4,000 about 10 miles south of Trenton, Bordentown is getting more liberal. In 2018, 70% of those who cast ballots voted to send Democrat Andy Kim to Congress, more than twice the number who backed Republican Tom MacArthur — and compared with 55% for the Democratic candidate in 2016.
Bordentown, where Kim used to live, was one of the Burlington County communities that propelled him to victory two years ago. Now seeking reelection, Kim is expected to face a similarly close race this year in South Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District.
And winning places such as Bordentown might not be enough.
Less than 15 miles away is the border of deep-red Ocean County, part of which is also in the district. Down roads flanked by farmland and churches, on the way to beach towns, are parts of New Jersey where Democrats historically haven’t had a chance. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 33 percentage points in Ocean County — his largest margin in the state.
The two counties underscore how Kim’s reelection campaign could make for one of the tightest congressional races in the country.
“It’s two truly distinct segments,” said Patrick Murray, a longtime pollster at Monmouth University. “There’s no overlap between the two in terms of how they act politically.”
In between meeting with shopkeepers in Bordentown this month, Kim said his constituents are worried about the same things regardless of where they live: The pandemic and the economy have taken center stage, while concerns about taxes and the cost of health care persist.
“On Long Beach Island, people are worried about flooding, but you go along the Rancocas Creek and they’ve got flooding issues there, too,” Kim said, referring to places in Ocean and Burlington Counties, respectively. “When people have an opportunity to ask a question, they’re often very similar from place to place. That’s why you have to treat these communities equally, and understand that people just want to be talked to with respect about the things that are having an impact on their lives.”
Made up of almost all of Burlington County and a large piece of Ocean County, the 3rd District is a longtime Republican stronghold in a Democratic state. Former Eagles tackle Jon Runyan represented the district from 2011 to 2015. Kim flipped it by fewer than 4,000 votes in 2018. If he wins again, he’ll be the first Democrat in decades to hold the seat for consecutive terms.
A former national security aide under President Barack Obama, Kim has proven a prolific fund-raiser, especially for a freshman. He’s raised more than $4 million since joining Congress, and had $3.5 million in campaign cash at the end of June, according to federal filings.
The district spans the pricey Philadelphia media market and the even more expensive New York market, and spending on TV ads underscores how hard-fought the race could be: The campaigns and outside groups had combined to drop about $1.6 million on the airwaves through last week, with $10 million in planned spending through Election Day, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
Burlington County was swing territory a few decades ago, but as the population in towns along the Delaware River changed, it has shifted left. In 2018, Democrats took control of the county’s governing board for the first time in 40 years. A year later, they captured all five seats.
About 40% of voters in the district are registered with no party affiliation, making them critical to the outcome of any general election. David Richter, the Republican challenging Kim, called Burlington a “purple” county where independent voters pick candidates, not parties. In Ocean County, he said, independents tend to vote Republican.
“I don’t have any doubt that I’m going to win Ocean County, and Andy Kim is going to win Burlington,” said Richter, a former construction executive who grew up in Burlington County and now lives in Ocean. “Whoever wins their county bigger is going to Congress for the next two years.”
Kim won 37% of the Ocean County vote in 2018. MacArthur, despite facing backlash from seniors and others for helping draft a bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, won 60% of the vote.
Ocean County is more than 92% white, according to Census data, while Burlington County is younger and more diverse. Fewer residents of Ocean County have college degrees. Both counties have a significant veteran population, and each is home to a military base.
Frank Holman, chairman of the Ocean County Republican Committee, said congressional candidates have struggled with appealing to disparate voters on both sides of the district in recent years.
“It comes down to who’s more excited about the election,” he said.
Ocean County’s population grew 5% over the last decade, due partly to its popularity as an affordable retirement destination near the beach. Orthodox and other Jewish communities put down roots in such towns as Lakewood, shoring up the Republican base, Holman said.
“We have a more diverse population now, but they’ve stayed in that solidly Republican column,” he said.
State Sen. Troy Singleton, a Democrat who has represented Burlington County in Trenton since 2011, said Democrats have been able to win more local elections thanks not only to a changing population, but also as some voters grow weary of Trump.
“People are getting so turned off, and that’s created an environment that has put a wind at our backs,” Singleton said. “It’s going to hurt the Republican Party.”
Peg Houle, a Democrat running for a seat on her local township committee in Barnegat, Ocean County, said trying to make inroads in a heavily conservative community can be frustrating.
Houle moved to Barnegat five years ago with her husband to retire, and is now active in local politics. In an interview, she conceded she might not have chosen the area had she known what a dramatic effect Trump would have on the political environment.
“A lot of Democrats here will not exactly broadcast that they are Democrats,” she said. “We all have friends who support Trump, and I know there have been some lost friendships.”
But the district’s divided voters can still find common ground. When she first ran unsuccessfully for township committee last year, Houle proposed ideas for revitalizing the downtown — one of which was to extend the hours of a farmers market to encourage shoppers to stay for dinner. This year, the committee did just that.
“So, we don’t disagree on everything,” she said.