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Money, Accusations, Attacks — The Race for the 5th District Is Just Heating Up

Democratic hopeful Josh Gottheimer wants to take the 5th from arch-conservative incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett. He may just be within striking distance

garrett and gottheimer
Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett (left) and Democratic hopeful Josh Gottheimer

U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, the most conservative member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, likely hasn’t seen a race this close since — well, since he was elected.

The eight-term Republican from New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, an area that encompasses four of the state’s most northern counties, is facing what appears to be his fiercest challenge yet this year as he squares off against Democratic hopeful Josh Gottheimer, a Microsoft executive from Bergen County. The two have gone at it over a number of hot-button issues over the course of the campaign, including the Republican’s support for a bill in Washington that would provide healthcare to first responders of the 9/11 attacks. They’ve also captured the attention of their respective national party organizations, the Democratic National Congressional Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Gottheimer, a former presidential adviser and speechwriter, was tapped by national Democrats to run for the seat last year, and has been talked up by members of the party both inside and outside the district who see his fundraising abilities and ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton as potential game-changers against the doggedly conservative Garrett.

With seven weeks to go before general election, the race is hitting its stride. Financial backing from national political actions committees on both sides, online and cable TV advertising, and some vicious back-and-forths over a number of issues have all made the contest one to watch. Both the DCCC and NRCC have poured money into the race, with the DCCC listing the district on their “Red-to-Blue” webpage, and releasing a poll last month that put Garret just narrowly ahead of Gottheimer, 44 percent to 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided. Other nonpartisan political organizations also rank it as one of the most competitive House races in the country.

It appears even more competitive, and therefore is attracting more attention, than Garrett’s 2014 re-election, when the Republican fended off a challenge by young Democratic lawyer Roy Cho. Democrats followed that race with anticipation, hoping Cho’s grassroots campaign and anti-Washington insider message might finally ring the death knell for the longtime incumbent, but Garrett ultimately won with ease, trouncing the 33-year-old Cho by 13 points. Cho declined to run again for the seat last year, opting instead to return to private practice.

This year, though, is a little different, as experts say several factors have come together to make Garrett — a conservative outlier who’s never won the district by less than 11 points — more vulnerable in this race than in past races. Those factors include the presence of outside PAC money, but also the ongoing controversy that has followed Garrett after comments he made last year about refusing to pay NRCC dues because it supports openly gay candidates. The comments were met with a hailstorm of criticism for the Republican, who lost several major donors as a result, and have become a major pressure point in the contest against Gottheimer, who has called Garrett a “shameless bigot.”

And perhaps most importantly, there’s the impact this year’s presidential contest could have on the down-ballot race, which are both set for November 8.

“If there was a cycle for Democrats to get Garrett it would probably be this one, given that Trump’s not a particularly good fit for that district, and Garrett has problems independent of Trump, and also Democrats like their candidate,” according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan weekly newsletter at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics that analyzes political races across the country.

9/11 first responders

The race between Garrett and Gottheimer blew up earlier this month when the Republican, who had cosponsored the first round of first-responder legislation back in 2010, issued a press release touting an endorsement by a coalition of veterans and his support for the Zadroga Act. Named for James Zadroga, a New York City police detective who is believed to be the first 9/11 responder to die of exposure to toxins at the World Trade Center site, the bill is intended to provide health monitoring and financial aid to first responders of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Garrett said he was a “proud” supporter of the legislation.

But the release was immediately pounced on by Gottheimer’s campaign, which noted that Garrett was one of a few Republicans in Washington — he was joined by U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7) — who had voted against a reauthorization of the Zadroga Act a few years later. Garrett has said his reasoning for voting down the measure was because it had been included in a "bloated" omnibus spending bill he opposed, but that hasn’t stopped the Gottheimer from dragging the incumbent through the mud over the apparent contradiction.

Last week, the Democrat held a press conference in Jersey City where he called Garrett a “coward” for refusing to support the reauthorization. He was flanked by Zadroga's father, Joe, who also stars in an attack ad the Gottheimer campaign launched two days after Garrett’s press release.

“My opponent’s failure to fight terror at home and abroad is utterly despicable,” Gottheimer said in a later statement. “Garrett’s record is clear: he consistently puts his Tea Party extremism over what’s best for our police, fire fighters, and all first responders.”

Garrett, though, hasn’t let the issue slide. His support for the legislation specifically, as well as for veteran’s issues in general, has never wavered, he’s maintained, and has accused Gottheimer of “distorting” his record for his own political gain. In an email interview with NJ Spotlight, the Republican called the attack a “campaign tactic that is so typical of a political insider like Josh Gottheimer — shocking, yet not surprising.”

Garrett eventually called for and supported a permanent extension of the act in 2015, but voted down an early attempt, saying he opposed those who “attached it to both tax hikes and trillions of dollars in unrelated spending.”

“Supporting the brave men and women who protect our community as First Responders has been one of my top priorities since I began serving the people of the Fifth District in Congress,” Garrett told NJ Spotlight. “I have sponsored, voted for and called on my leadership to support legislation to benefit First Responders — including the Zadroga Act. I also fought back as some tried to distort the legislation by politicizing it. Any assertion that I have been less than a full-throated champion for First Responders is absurd and offensive.”

Big money

Located in one of the most expensive media markets in the country, including parts of wealthy Bergen County like Paramus, races in the 5th often come down to money. It’s one of the biggest advantages Garrett has had over Democratic challengers in the past, as the Republican — the chairman of the powerful Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises — has consistently been able to maintain a huge war chest for reelection campaigns.

Cho had some success in closing that gap last year, raising $1.3 million for his campaign with little to no help from the national committees like the DCCC. But it wasn’t enough to budge Garrett, who spent almost the same amount and still finished the race with nearly $2 million in the bank. That gave the moneyed Republican a considerable head start in this year’s contest with Gottheimer, who entered the race with nothing.

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But Gottheimer has wasted no time in leveraging his deep network of movers and shakers to catch up (see the table). As of his last FEC filing in June he had about $2.5 million cash on hand. That included donations from the PACs of Johnson & Johnson, Verizon Communications, and the DCCC, as well as from celebrities like Chris Rock and politicians like former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli.

Garrett, meanwhile, started with $1.9 million and, according to his FEC filings, now has some $2.7 million cash on hand. The Republican’s fundraising prowess, aided by his close ties to Wall Street, brings him more money than almost any other member of the House, and a sizeable portion of his donations come from major banks and financial players.

Several national political action committees have also committed to their candidates’ campaigns. The House Majority PAC, which focuses on getting Democrats elected to Congress, has spent $1 million against Garrett in media and advertising this cycle, while the American Principles Fund, a conservative PAC focused on the protection of constitutional law, spent $185,000 in digital and cable media buys in support of the incumbent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Both the NRCC and DCCC, which has called Garrett a “top target” in 2016, have also spent on the race.

Presidential coattails

One of the most interesting dynamics — and the one that may have the greatest impact at the polls, according to observers — in the 5th District race is its similarity to this year’s contentious presidential election. The two contests closely parallel each other: both pit a well-moneyed centrist Democrat against a well-moneyed extremely conservative Republican, and both have featured heated back-and-forths over charges of racism and political extremism.

Those charges in the 5th came after Garrett, in a private meeting that was later leaked to the public, said he would not pay his NRCC dues unless the group stopped backing candidates who supported same-sex marriage. The comments elicited condemnation from politicians and social activists in Washington and elsewhere — including state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who wrote a letter to several financial groups that have contributed to Garrett in the past asking them to rescind their support — and cost the Republican a few major donors.

Gottheimer and House Democrats have sought to tie the flap to Trump, who’s faced his own backlash on the national stage for stances he’s taken on issues like immigration and religious extremism. Earlier in the summer, the DCCC released a web commercial comparing Garrett’s positions to those of the real estate mogul’s, highlighting Trump's opposition to abortion, his description of immigrants crossing the border from Mexico as "rapists," and his call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

"This race is about Jersey values versus Tea Party extremism,” said Jeff Raines, Communications Director for Gottheimer for Congress. “It's about someone who wants to work across the aisle to fight for lower taxes, equal pay, and first responders, versus an anti-gay bigot who thinks our best days are behind us. Garrett is fighting for Mississippi values, not what's best for our families in the 5th District."

In response, Garrett has worked to tie Gottheimer to Clinton, labeling him a “Washington insider” looking to buy a seat in Congress. Garrett went up with the first cable TV ad of the cycle in August that attempted to drive the point home, and told NJ Spotlight that Gottheimer, who served as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton in the ‘90s and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, is “leveraging his political connections as a former aide in the Clinton White House in order to win this seat.”

“The New Jersey media salivates over his press releases, not even bothering to fact check his charges before demanding a response from my campaign, and yet our valid questions about his background and issue stances go uninvestigated,” Garrett said.

It’s unclear whether either attack will work in the 5th District, however, which covers a huge swath of territory ranging from urban Bergen County to rural Warren County, with parts of Passaic and Sussex in between. The area has traditionally leaned Republican, but redistricting in recent years, which brought towns like Hackensack and other Democratic-leaning sections of Bergen County into the fold, has made the GOP’s success there less certain. While the state carried President Barack Obama to victory in 2012, Mitt Romney won by three points in the 5th District, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won by just two points in 2008. Bergen County, which now makes up 72 percent of the district and is thought to be the last real swing district in the state, has been less consistent: Obama won it by 40,000 votes in 2012, and Governor Chris Christie, by 50,000 votes a year later.

Both Trump and Clinton, moreover, have historically high unfavorable ratings, with 63 percent of voters disapproving of Trump and 56 percent disapproving of Clinton.

Kondik said the changing dynamics might pose a challenge for Garrett, a religiously devout social conservative from the rural Sussex County section of the 5th, whose values don’t necessarily square with the district’s more moderate Republican demographics.

“That’s not something I think that necessarily plays well in this kind of district, but whether the Democrats message on that can break through is unclear,” Kondik said.

Still, Garrett has always been somewhat of a political anomaly in New Jersey. Once included in a group of legislators called the “Mountain Men” for his deeply conservative views when he served as an assemblyman in Trenton, he lost twice in the district to a more moderate incumbent, former U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema. He finally turned the tables in 2002, when Roukema retired and Garrett won a contested five-way primary with 46 percent of the vote. Since then, he’s held the seat with consistently wide margins, most recently beating Cho two years ago with 55.4 to 43.3 percent of the vote.

Garrett said that this year’s political environment “obviously makes the race more challenging from previous years,” but the campaign’s internal metrics are strong and he intends to continue fighting for residents of the 5th with agendas aimed at building a stronger military and economy.

“I hear two things from New Jerseyans — they are worried about the economy and national security. I agree, and I continue to fight to fix these problems,” Garrett said. “That’s why I have consistently voted to strengthen our military and that’s why I was an early and vocal opponent of the dangerous Obama Iran deal — unlike my opponent, who spent his time fundraising in D.C., waiting to see which way the political winds were blowing before taking a stance, and who continues to collect money from people who support the Iran deal and criticize Israel.”

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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