Democratic Challenger to 5th District Incumbent May Be Fading in Stretch Run

Meir Rinde | October 31, 2014 | Elections 2014
Latest survey shows Republican Scott Garrett pulling ahead after earlier poll showed newcomer Roy Cho making it a race

GOP Rep. Scott Garrett faces a challenge in the 5th Congressional District. He is one of 10 incumbents facing contests in their party's June primary.
A first-time Democratic candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat is giving Republican Rep. Scott Garrett, the most conservative member of the New Jersey delegation, a tougher than expected race for reelection.

A poll earlier this month found challenger Roy Cho closing in on Garrett, though a brand new survey released yesterday shows him falling 11 points behind the incumbent.

Cho, a 33-year-old lawyer, moved to the district on New Jersey’s northern tip just two years ago. Long considered a Republican stronghold, the 5th gained a number of Democratic towns during the last redistricting but has continued to support Garrett, who is seeking his seventh term in Congress. Cho emerged from relative obscurity in mid-October when a Monmouth University poll unexpectedly put him just 5 points behind Garrett.

Democrat Roy Cho
Cho was emboldened by his 43 percent showing, to Garrett’s 48 percent, along with his successful fundraising and attention-getting attacks on Garrett’s opposition to Superstorm Sandy relief. District voters are growing weary of Washington gridlock and Republican domination of the House, Cho has argued, and are finally ready to try someone new.

“The reality is we’re seeing a very strong anti-incumbency sense,” he said in an interview. “When I knock on doors, I tell them I’m running for U.S. Congress and they say, ‘Listen, I’m not interested, I’m completely turned off, I hate ’em all.’ People are really angry at politicians.”

“I always say, listen, I’m just as frustrated as you are. I’m a first-time candidate and I think we need to change things up. I think we need fresh ideas,” he said.

The 55-year-old Garrett, who has won every reelection bid by at least 11 points, dismissed Cho’s initial poll result as little better than the final tally for his previous Democratic challenger, who raised almost no money.

Yet Garrett did inject life into his previously sleepy campaign, giving interviews and deploying his $3 million war chest to attack Cho as an Obama ally and a newcomer to the district who misrepresented the date when he actually moved there. His campaign manager alleged Cho committed “voter fraud” by voting from his old address in Monmouth County after the date when Cho says he moved to Hackensack.

In the face of the “full Garrett offensive,” and lacking financial help from the national Democratic party, Cho saw his favorability rating drop and undecided voters moving to Garrett, said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute. The institute’s new poll, released Thursday, gives Garrett an 11-point lead, 53 percent to 42 percent.

Cho has tried to paint Garrett as a “Tea Party extremist” who contributes to congressional gridlock while masking his views from voters, but both the congressman and voters seem to have shrugged off the attacks.

In an interview, Garrett rejected Cho’s claim to offer a fresh perspective; for example, when asked about Cho’s assertion that Garrett does not support efforts to improve employment conditions for women, Garrett called his challenger’s own positions outdated.

“My opponent has been very forceful for the length of the campaign, being critical in these areas,” Garrett said. “We’re still waiting to see if he’s going to come up with anything new on any of these fronts, as opposed to just recycling the same failed talking points and recycling the same failed policies of the past that have led to this stagnating economy for women and others.”

A Storm over Sandy

Cho had been pounding at Garrett for months — criticizing him for opposing a highway funding bill, for botching a Facebook ad, and for sending out taxpayer-funded promotional mailings — when Garrett sent out a campaign flyer that said he had “worked to bring immediate relief to Sandy victims.”

Cho pounced, called the mailing “the height of hypocrisy” because of Garrett’s well-known ambivalence toward the $50.7 billion Sandy aid bill that passed last year. Garrett hadsuggested the bill could be “wasteful” and was the only member of the New Jersey delegation not to sign a letter urging its speedy consideration by the House.

“Scott Garrett really must think his constituents have short memories to forget his foot-dragging and silence in the wake of Hurricane Sandy,” Cho said in a press release.

Others piled on. Montclair State professor Brigid Harrison, a well-known political analyst who lost her home in the storm, also rejected the claim as false, as did a Star-Ledger editorial.

Garrett’s campaign eventually responded, calling Cho’s attack “specious” and not based on reality. Garrett said he had acted quickly after the storm, if not on the main aid bill. He authored an earlier bill that provided $9.7 billion to cover flood insurance claims and sent letters to federal agencies asking for their help. And he did later vote for the main aid measure.

Cho’s criticism is “totally unfair and a distortion of the record, because he knows that I was the one who wrote the first bill on Sandy relief,” Garrett said.

Garrett also hit back at Cho on another front, picking apart his claim that he moved to Bergen County in 2012. Records show Cho still voted in his hometown of Manalapan, Monmouth County, in November of that year and only registered in Hackensack in April 2013. Garrett’s campaign spokeswoman described Cho’s actions as “voter fraud.”

“Is he distorting the truth as far as how long he’s lived here, or is he not telling the truth to local officials down in South Jersey, where the record clearly shows he was continuing to vote?” Garrett said. “Those are troubling aspects, that he says one thing and does something else, and maybe even more than that if he’s not being honest to local officials as to where he’s voting.”

Cho maintains that he moved to Hackensack in summer 2012 but failed to change his voter registration until the following year. A campaign spokesman cited experts who said that people frequently vote at a former polling places without fraudulent intent, and that a voter’s legal residence may be different from his new home.

“The only people tossing around terms like ‘voter fraud’ are Scott Garrett and his campaign. Legal and political experts alike agree that Garrett’s campaign is just making it up, just as they have all throughout this campaign,” the Cho spokesman said in an email.

Garrett’s campaign has suggested that Cho both committed voter fraud and only moved to the district last year, though the claims contradict each other. Cho’s voting in Monmouth County was potentially improper only if he really did move to the 5th District two years ago, as he said he did; if he actually only moved last year, as Garrett maintains, Cho’s vote in Monmouth was unquestionably legal.

Garrett’s campaign also distributed records showing that Cho did not cast a vote in a number of elections over the years and has apparently never voted in a school election.

Comfortable with Conservatism

The 5th District has tantalized Democrats for years, especially since redistricting based on the 2010 Census brought Hackensack and other Democratic-leaning sections of Bergen County into the district. Over 70 percent of the votes in Garrett’s last election were cast in Bergen. The county as a whole gave President Obama 55 percent of its vote in 2012 and last year gave Cory Booker 57 percent in a U.S. Senate special election.

The 5th District’s urbanized eastern areas are somewhat balanced by its less populous and much more conservative sections in more rural Warren and Sussex counties, in the state’s northwest corner. Sussex, where Garrett lives, voted for Mitt Romney 60-38 percent over Obama, and Warren favored Romney 57-41. In the first Monmouth poll, more 5th District voters said they preferred Republican control of Congress (38 percent) than Democratic (36 percent).

Yet Cho, like previous Democratic candidates, has tried to sway voters by emphasizing Garrett’s conservatism. Garrett is pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage, and has advocated the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools, off-shore oil drilling, and privatization of Social Security.

One Cho commercial calls Garrett a Tea Party favorite and suggests he would fit better in Alabama than New Jersey. “The more you look at the real Scott Garrett, the more you want to turn away,” the ad says.

Similar messaging in past elections has failed to draw voters away from Garrett. In 2012, after redistricting, he still won Bergen County, earning almost 52 percent to Democrat Adam Gussen’s 48 percent, a difference of about 7,900 votes.

Cho would have to reverse those numbers and bring in tens of thousands of additional votes to win. Garrett won the race against Gussen by more than 37,000 votes, or about 13 points, in the district as a whole, even though President Obama’s reelection drew Democrats to the polls that year. Though Booker is on the ballot for a full Senate term this fall, turnout will be lower for the mid-term election and Democratic enthusiasm could be muted.

The first Monmouth poll gave Cho better numbers than Garrett in Bergen County, as well as low unfavorability ratings, but as Garrett attacked on TV and sent out mailings, and as more people paid attention to the race, Cho’s tentative advantages evaporated.

Now Garrett is even slightly favored in Bergen, 48 percent to 46 percent. Districtwide, previously undecided voters have apparently mostly gone over to him.

Despite the attacks related to Superstorm Sandy, 44 percent of voters say Garrett did a good job helping people in New Jersey recover from the storm, an increase from the first poll. Cho’s unfavorability rating have more than doubled to 16 percent. And 54 percent of voters surveyed have no opinion of Cho, suggesting they still do not know him.

A Lopsided Financial Race

Cho has had the benefit of a much larger war chest than Gussen had two years ago. He raised just over $1 million by mid-October and has spent nearly all of it. But Garrett has spent more than Cho and still had $2.8 million in the bank.

Among Cho’s donors are employees of Kirkland & Ellis, where he practices business law, and other legal and investment firms. Cho, whose parents are Korean immigrants, has also drawn substantial support from Asian-American donors in New Jersey, New York, California and other states.

His recent contributors include Booker, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and several members of Congress; “Star Trek” actor George Takei; a number of employees of a California company called Duracoat Products; and PACs for AFSCME, SEIU, the United Auto Workers, the Sheet Metal Workers, the National Education Association and other unions.

He has not benefited from independent expenditures by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or other outside groups, who may have been conserving their TV money for tight races where the Democratic candidate seemed to have a better chance of winning.

Cho’s spending in the period from July to mid-October included at least $330,000 for television commercials.

Meanwhile Garrett has raised $1.9 million since January 2013, $826,000 of it this year, and had $2.8 million cash on hand. A member of the House Financial Services Committee, he received $1.1 million from financial industry employees and groups. The figure includes $466,000 from the securities and investment industry alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

His PAC donors in the current election cycle include the pro-Israel group NORPAC, the Club for Growth, and a long list of banks, investment firms, real estate developers, insurance companies, consulting and accounting firms, and other businesses.

Garrett had spent $1.2 million as of October 15. He ramped up his spending sharply in early October, spending $315,000 in two weeks, including $246,000 to produce and air commercials. That compares to the previous three months’ spending of $392,000, $161,000 on it advertising. Figures for the period after the release of the first Monmouth poll have not been released yet.