Frelinghuysen, first elected in 1994, represents suburbs and exurbs of New York City that had long voted solidly Republican. For 22 years, his father, Peter, represented a similar district; in every election and reelection, the younger Frelinghuysen won at least 58 percent of the vote. Frelinghuysen's family, which arrived in America in 1720, had produced a secretary of state and four U.S. senators, one of whom helped his state ratify the Constitution.
Republicans face strong political head winds: The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections, and the president's approval rating is hovering under 40 percent. More than 1 in 10 House Republicans have decided to bow out, some in safe seats, some damaged by scandals and some facing competitive races.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (Ohio) spoke optimistically about keeping the seat. "This district has been held by a Republican since the 1980s, and we plan to keep it that way in November," he said.
Democrats, however, see Frelinghuysen's 11th congressional District as increasingly winnable in 2018. In 2016, President Trump won just 48.8 percent of the vote in the district. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) carried the district in his landslide 2017 election; three towns that had voted reliably Republican since 1981 also backed Murphy, as Democrats broke the Republican lock on some local offices.
By then, Democrats had piled into the 2018 race, with Mikie Sherrill, a Navy veteran and federal prosecutor, garnering the most attention and largely clearing the field. As of her last fundraising report, in October, Sherrill had raised $732,509 — nearly half as much as the retiring Republican.
"While Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen and I did not agree on many issues, as a fellow veteran I deeply respect his service to our country and to this community," Sherrill said in a statement. "From serving in Vietnam, to the New Jersey legislature, to the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Frelinghuysen dedicated himself to protecting this country."
Frelinghuysen had taken the challenge seriously, ending 2017 with more than $1.1 million in his campaign fund. Still, in his first term leading the Appropriations Committee, he was entitled to four more years as one of the most powerful "cardinals," the term for the influential chairmen who oversee government spending.
But the politics of 2017 took a toll. Like most of the New Jersey Republican delegation, Frelinghuysen opposed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, saying his state would be hurt by the end of the popular state and local tax deduction; Republican leaders briefly considered taking his gavel away to send a message. Instead, Frelinghuysen became the eighth committee chairman to call it quits.
Like other suburban Republicans who've announced their retirements this cycle, Frelinghuysen was also dogged by liberal activists from organizations that were founded after 2016 to oppose the Trump agenda. NJ 11th For Change, the main group of local organizers, protested outside his office and pleaded with him not to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The congressman, who had never faced a serious reelection challenge, took the protesters on. In May, Frelinghuysen sent a fundraising letter to a board member of a local bank, warning that "organized forces" were "hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government." A handwritten note added that "one of the ringleaders works in your bank!" The bank employee, Saily Avelenda, kept her job only after writing an internal statement that laid out her political activity.
On Monday, Avelenda and her fellow organizers declared victory.
"We're thrilled," said Elizabeth Juviler, co-founder of NJ 11th For Change. "We made really clear, simple demands that he meet with his constituents and that he make his policies and votes transparent. He refused, day after day. So, he saw the writing on the wall."