Benefiting from record-breaking fundraising and high voter turnout in Bergen County, which makes up a large portion of the 5th Congressional District, Democratic hopeful Josh Gottheimer wrestled control of the 5th from seven-term Republican incumbent Scott Garrett in one of the most competitive — and most divisive — congressional races of this election year.
“They said this couldn’t happen, that our district was just too partisan, too entrenched, that the ads would be too expensive and the odds just too long,” Gottheimer said to a small straggling crowd of supporters at the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton. “But handshake by handshake, call by call, living room by living room, vote by vote, you — all of you — proved them wrong.”
Gottheimer declared Wednesday morning following a nail-biting evening that saw the two candidates trading places in race that was, until around 12:30 a.m., too close to call. The Democrat held only a slight lead over Garrett as results from the western portion of the district, including Warren and Sussex counties, rolled in, but ended up pulling ahead after midnight, ending with 10,266 votes and 100 percent of the precincts reporting.
Still, Republicans in the district suggested the race isn’t settled. Bergen County Republican chairman Paul DiGaetano said earlier in the night that there were still 20,000 mail-in ballots that had yet to be counted, while Garrett, even after the final results were in and Gottheimer was declared the winner, hadn’t issued a concession speech. Instead, he sent out a statement shortly afterward saying the contest’s outcome “shouldn’t be called until these ballots can be counted.”
“The surge in absentee ballots in the 5th District goes to show that our voters are engaged in this election like never before,” said Garrett, who was expected to appear at an election party at the Bergen County Republican headquarters in Hackensack but did not attend. “A large number of provisional ballots have also been cast, and election officials tell us that those ballots may not be verified and tabulated for several days.”
A former state assemblyman from Sussex County, Garrett, 52, has held his seat in the north Jersey district since 2002, when he won a contested five-way primary for the seat that had been then vacated by former U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema. He’s been something of a political anomaly in New Jersey, a Tea Party Republican whose stances on social issues and tax reform make him the most conservative member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, which is currently split six Republicans and six Democrats. If Gottheimer should hold onto the win, that will tilt seven to five in favor of the Democrats, as all of the other congressional incumbents in New Jersey retained their seats.
Until now, though, that Garrett’s hard right political position hasn’t affected his ability to hold on to his seat, having never won the district by fewer than 11 points. Last year, he faced one of his toughest challenges in Democrat Roy Cho, but ultimately fended off the political newcomer with ease, winning 55.4 percent to 43.3 percent of the vote.
Several factors came together to loosen that grip this year, however, including comments Garrett made behind closed doors last year about not supporting gay candidates for election. In a private meeting that was later leaked to the public, Garrett said he would not pay his National Republican Congressional Committee dues unless the group stopped backing candidates who supported same-sex marriage. The comments elicited condemnation from politicians and social activists in Washington, DC, and also cost the Republican a few major donors.
Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, used that controversy to his advantage, casting Garrett as a “shameless bigot” who did not represent the interests of the 700,000-person district. The race quickly became ugly, with both candidates attacking each other over allegations of corruption and harassment. It also became one of the most expensive congressional races in the country, with Gottheimer leveraging a strong ground game and his Washington network to raise over $4 million toward his fledgling bid. Thousands more in spending from outside special-interest groups like the Democratic Congressional Committee and House Majority PAC helped tip the tables further.
In a spacious ballroom at the Hilton, Gottheimer’s supporters and other Bergen County Democrats came together to celebrate the candidate’s win, praising him as a hardworking ally who led a grassroots campaign to victory. A Microsoft executive who lives with his family in Wyckoff, Gottheimer ran on a socially progressive but fiscally conservative platform that featured calls for lowered taxes and expanded healthcare for women and 9/11 first responders — issues that supporters said reflect the moderate leanings of the 5th District.
“This is monumental, what we did here tonight. This is history,” said BCDO chairman Lou Stellato, who carried a broom as a symbolic representation of the party’s success.
Gottheimer’s victory was something of a shining light for the crowd, who over the course of the night had watched with dread the progress of the presidential election, which saw Hillary Clinton trailing behind controversial Republican nominee Donald Trump as results from battleground states trickled in. It also completed a sweep that began for the party earlier in the night, including victories in the county freeholder and sheriff races.
“A lot of things came together,” Gottheimer told NJ Spotlight after his speech. “The overall message that I was talking about, which is lower taxes and Jersey values of actually working together across the aisle to get things done. I think that’s what people want, especially people around here, who are so sick and tired of the partisanship. They want someone who is actually going to fight for them, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Politically, the Gottheimer’s win not only shifts the balance of congressional party power in the state but also could have a lasting impact on Bergen County, the district’s most populous and urban county and the state’s last true “swing” county. Gottheimer lost Passaic, Sussex, and Warren County but won Bergen by 28,000 and was still ended up winning by over 10,000, garnering 50.6 percent to 47.2 percent of the vote. Party leaders in the county last night said that points to the importance of the county in any regional — or statewide — race.
“I think the demographics are shifting, the blue towns are moving more north, and we’re getting more minorities,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, whose upset in 2014 of Republican incumbent Kathy Donovan came as a similar surprise to Bergen County officials. “But we have a great organization. And that’s what makes it so different. We have a plan, we have fundraising, and those are the things that breed success.”
The 5th District has also changed in recent years. Formerly a more solidly red district, 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 has been less consistent: While Clinton won it by roughly 40,000 votes this year and Obama by a similar margin in 2012, it went to Gov. Chris Christie by 50,000 votes margin a year later. Gottheimer is the first Democrat to win in the district since the 1980s.
“This is not a socially right-wing extreme district. It is a place where people are fiscally conservative but socially very moderate or even liberal. So I think a lot of it is Josh being in line with how people think in the district,” said Adam Silverstein, a Democratic strategist on Gottheimer’s campaign.
In addition to congressional races, in which all incumbents won other than Gottheimer, there were also some special legislative contests on the ballot this year. Those included a state Senate race in Middlesex’s District 18, where Democrat Patrick Diegnan Jr. won with 61.6 percent of the vote against Roger Dale; an Assembly race in District 18 where Democrat Robert Karabinchak won with 60.3 percent over Camille Ferraro Clark; and an Assembly race in Essex’s District 29, where Democrat Blonnie Watson won with 38,149 or 86.5 percent, over Ronda Morrison.