Record fundraising numbers and millions of dollars in outside spending are shaking up House races across New Jersey this election season, with at least one contest looking like it could lead to the ousting of a long-time and well-moneyed Republican incumbent.
The latest round of financial disclosures from the Federal Election Commission shows a new influx of money for all 12 of New Jersey’s contested congressional seats. Those are split evenly between Democratic and Republican incumbents, all of whom face challengers of varying experience and notoriety from the opposing party. A roster of third-party candidates will also appear on the ballot in several districts.
With established name recognition and national party support, sitting members of Congress are notoriously hard to beat, and most of New Jersey’s House members up for re-election in November are not deviating from that norm. Multiple-term incumbents like U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) continue to put serious distance between themselves and their opponents, often benefited by large war chests carried over from previous campaigns.
Sires had more than $300,000 in the bank compared to Republican challenger Agha Kahn’s $4,837 as of their most recent filings; almost two-thirds of Sires’ funding came from earlier elections. Frelinghuysen, meanwhile, had $658,430, and the eleven-term Republican incumbent’s opponent, Democrat Joseph Wenzel of West Orange, hasn’t reported any financial activity since his initial candidacy filing in May.
The races are a little tighter in places like New Jersey’s 2nd and 7th congressional districts — though not by much. Democratic challengers David Cole of Sewell in the 2nd and Peter Jacob of Union in the 7th have drummed up local support for their fledgling bids, resulting in more media coverage and national party attention, but they still lag considerably behind their GOP opponents in terms of funding.
Cole, for instance, has raised $74,865 since January 2015, but that’s nowhere near the $1.3 million Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has amassed in the same time. Similarly, Jacob has raised just over $100,000 since the beginning of 2015, but that’s only a fraction of what U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, with $969,170, has raked in over the same period.
The funding gaps underscore the power of incumbency in each race: While Cole and Jacob have had to rely on individual donations to raise those amounts, the vast majority of both Lance and LoBiondo’s contributions have come from local and national political action committees, such as from Johnson and Johnson and General Electric.
Of course, the big exception in all this is north Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, where eight-term Republican incumbent Scott Garrett finds himself on the ropes in his increasingly divisive fight against Democratic hopeful and former Microsoft executive Josh Gottheimer. Garrett began as the odds-on favorite in the race, but a number of factors have brought Gottheimer within striking distance.
“Gottheimer has been very successful in bringing in money simply because I think Garrett finally put his foot in it in terms of turning off a number of constituencies,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. “I think Gottheimer was very good at selling himself to these donors, and convincing them that this was a real shot to get rid of somebody who has stood against gays right and a whole other litany of political causes.”
According to FEC filings released last week, Gottheimer now leads Garrett in the fundraising race, with $2.6 million cash-on-hand to the Republican’s $2.1 million. The advantage comes amid a new flood of money for the Democratic newcomer, who began his campaign last year with nothing but has since raised a surprisingly steep total of $4 million.
That number makes Gottheimer the top fundraiser of any House candidate from New Jersey since 1980, according to FEC data. A huge chunk of it came in the last quarter, when the Democrat raised $1.1 million, or almost double what his GOP opponent — with $539,898 —raised over the same period.
The changing funding landscape is an indication of just how vulnerable Garrett has become this election season, which has seen him dogged by ongoing controversy following comments he made last year. In a private meeting, the Republican — the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises and one of his party’s most well-funded members — said he would not pay his dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee unless the group stopped backing candidates who supported same-sex marriage.
The remarks, which he’s said have been taken out of context and distorted by opponents, have nevertheless hurt him politically, eliciting a strong backlash from fellow Republicans and resulting in the loss of several major donors.
They have also been used to devastating effect by Gottheimer, a close political ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton who was recruited to run for the seat by national Democrats last year. With the help of national party committees, Gottheimer’s campaign has used the controversy to paint Garrett as a “shameless bigot,” launching expensive media attacks against the incumbent’s political record. It’s also sought to link Garrett to Donald Trump, the embattled Republican presidential nominee.
“It looked like Garrett overstepped the bounds of quite a few moderates as well, particularly in this environment with Donald Trump,” Murray said. “You can actually paint Garrett with the same brush that you can paint Donald Trump, and Garrett gave them added ammunition to do that.”
The attacks seem to be working. In a poll released earlier this month by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, Gottheimer led Garrett 48 percent to 41 percent — a significant shift from a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll conducted in August, which found the Republican ahead by two points. At least two nonpartisan political newsletters have changed their ratings on the race in recent weeks, with the Cook Political Report now calling it a “toss up” and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report calling it a “toss-up/tilt Republican.”
The competitiveness of the district has led to more involvement from national political action committees, which have poured millions of dollars into the race in an effort to influence the outcome. Most of that money has come from partisan groups such as the liberal House Majority PAC and conservative American Principles Fund, but a good portion of it in recent weeks was spent by the National Association of Realtors, which has a history of supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates in the district.
While the association’s traditional political action committee had made donations to Garrett as early as last year, in May it endorsed Gottheimer and its super PAC has since spent $1.3 million on television commercials promoting the candidate. (Under the 2010 Citizens United campaign finance law, a PAC may spend up to $5,000 per election, but a super PAC can accept unlimited political contributions and spend it for or against any candidate of their choosing, as long as that spending is independent from the candidate’s campaign.)
Gottheimer has also benefited from the support of the House Majority PAC, which has spent $1.6 million on ads attacking Garrett in the district; the DCCC has spent $524,000 on similar media. The Environmental Defense Action Fund, additionally, spent over $110,000 on campaign material in support of the Democrat.
Activity from other liberal expenditure groups has registered in the 1st congressional district, where U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross is leveraging his South Jersey labor ties to stamp out a challenge by Republican Robert Patterson. Blue American Super PAC, a liberal expenditure group based in Washington, D.C., and Patriot Majority USA, an economic advocacy 501c, have both spent there.
Garrett, for his part, has received less attention from national party interests. In the wake of his criticism of the NRCC, the House fundraising arm has played no supporting role for Garrett in the race. He has, however, been buoyed by spending from the conservative New Jersey Right To Life, the Club For Growth, and the American Principles Fund, which has thrown $185,000 into cable and online ads.
New Jersey Right To Life, a pro-life organization advocating tighter restrictions on abortion and euthanasia in New Jersey, has spent on two other districts in the state: in the third congressional district, in support of U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, and in the four congressional district, in support of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.
There have also been defections from within Garrett’s own party in terms of endorsements. Several well-known Republican donors — including, most recently, Hewlett Packard executive and former finance chairwoman for Governor Chris Christie’s failed presidential bid Meg Whitman — have decided not to support the incumbent. Those endorsements could help sway moderate Republicans in the district who find themselves on the fence about conservatives like Trump and Garrett, experts note.
Encompassing a broad swath of territory between Bergen and Sussex Counties in north Jersey, the 5th District has traditionally leaned Republican, but redistricting in recent years 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 won there by 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 Gov. Chris Christie, by 50,000 votes a year later.
Murray noted that the dynamics of this year’s elections — both on the national stage and in the district — have given Democrats a greater advantage than they had two years ago, when Democratic hopeful Roy Cho attempted to unseat Garrett in a similarly high-profile bid. Cho raised $1.3 million for his campaign with little to no help from 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.
“The fact is we’ve learned more about Garrett than Cho knew about him two years ago, particularly that he didn’t want to donate to the NRCC because of their support for gay candidates,” Murray said. “And then once Trump got nominated, it looked like this could be an environment where [Gottheimer] could pull this off. And you can’t take anything away from Gottheimer, who convinced those early donors that it’s a real race. And that early funding is what helped propel him.”