In District 5, Trash-Talking Republicans Keep Primary Race Down and Dirty

Hank Kalet | May 31, 2018 | Politics, Primary 2018
Steve Lonegan and John McCann outdo each other to prove who’s the real conservative

John McCann and Steve Lonegan
The Republican race to take back New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District from a freshman Democrat is already the most expensive primary campaign in the state — and among the nastiest.

That’s because the district historically has been in Republican hands and is now represented by Democrat Josh Gottheimer, who knocked off incumbent Republican Scott Garrett two years ago in an upset. Garrett, the most conservative member of the New Jersey delegation, had represented the district for 14 years after serving in the state Assembly for 13. Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton who lives in Wyckoff, had not served in elected office before his election, although he did work on numerous presidential campaigns. He defeated Garrett by barely three percentage points in a district won narrowly by Donald Trump, and became the first Democrat since the 1930s to represent the northwestern New Jersey district.

Thus, Republicans now see him as vulnerable. Republican candidate Steve Lonegan has raised about $1.4 million so far, including three personal loans totaling a little more than $1 million that he made to his own campaign, while John McCann has raised $186,655.

Both Lonegan and McCann have been in attack mode. Lonegan has called McCann a liberal masquerading as a conservative, while McCann has called Lonegan a liar and an opportunist. Both claim to be the true conservative in the race, and say Gottheimer is too liberal for the district and for the country.

Democrats see retaining the seat as a must if they are to flip Congress from Republican to Democratic control. The party needs a net gain of 25 seats to gain control, so it cannot afford to lose any seats it already holds.

Neither bright red nor deep blue

“The money is likely a reflection of the perception that (Gottheimer) remains vulnerable,” said Krista Jenkins, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll. “The district is neither crimson red nor deep blue. In order to win, you need to get out the party faithful.”

“It is going to be a question of mobilization,” Jenkins added. “Can you get your people to the polls? It is a simple numbers game. The GOP needs to do a better job to get the tried and true out to the polls than they did last time.”

Lonegan, a perennial Republican candidate, a former mayor of Bogota in Bergen County, and the GOP’s U.S. Senate standard-bearer in 2013, says the race is about control of Congress. Trump needs a strong Republican congressional majority to help him press his agenda forward.

McCann agrees, but says Lonegan is too caustic a personality, and too untrustworthy, to beat the incumbent, who has significant national organizational support.

Gottheimer, 43, was among the first class of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which provided resources to selected Democrats identified as having a good chance to take a Republican-held district. The DCCC remains committed to Gottheimer, a relatively conservative Democrat, and has backed another conservative Democrat, state Senator Jeff Van Drew (Cape May), who is running to replace Republican Frank LoBiondo in the Second District. LoBiondo is retiring. (In all, the the DCCC has highlighted four of the five seats currently held by Republicans in New Jersey as red-to-blue opportunities.)

Getting the Fifth in focus

The 5th District covers parts of Warren, Sussex, Passaic, and Bergen counties, making it the northernmost of the state’s 12 Congressional districts. It’s mostly suburban, though the northwestern parts of the district in Sussex and Warren are rural, with significant agriculture. It has been represented almost exclusively by Republicans since shortly after the Civil War.

The latest redistricting, which took effect for the 2012 election, altered the district’s makeup by adding several Democratic towns. Garrett’s margins of victory in 2012 and 2014 were significantly smaller than in his previous five elections, and while both Trump and Romney won the district, Trump did so by a single percentage point and Romney by two. John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, won by nine points, and George W. Bush by more than 15 in each of his runs. Democrats now own a 149,495-to-147,910 registration advantage.

The district is significantly whiter and richer than much of the state, with nearly four in five residents being white and a median family income of $100,219 — 36.6 percent greater than the state median of $73,702. Just 3.4 percent of families in the district fall below the national poverty threshold in a year, less than a third of the statewide figure of 10.4 percent. Overall, the population is just 5.4 percent black, 11 percent Asian, and 14 percent Hispanic; 79.5 percent are white. Statewide, the figures are 72.4 percent white, 15 percent, 9.8 percent Asian, and 20 percent Hispanic.

Gottheimer, the conservative Dem

Gottheimer is considered the most conservative Democrat in the New Jersey caucus, and one of the more conservative in the House. According to FiveThirtyEight, Gottheimer has voted for Trump-supported legislation 51.9 percent of the time, the fourth-highest percentage of any Democrat in the House. That’s also more than twice as much as any other New Jersey Democrat.

Progressive Democrats have been critical of Gottheimer, but many have lined up to support his campaign.

“Yes, sometimes we’re going to take issue with Gottheimer’s votes,” Rosi Efthim wrote in November on Blue Jersey, the Progressive Democratic blog she edits. “Yes, a ‘moderate’ Dem of Clintonesque background may frustrate his more progressive constituents. But remember: Scott Garrett used to occupy this seat.”

Lonegan calls Gottheimer a “left-winger that is portraying himself as some sort of a moderate.”

Gottheimer says Lonegan is the extremist, “a Tea Party extremist who is anti-gay, anti-cop, and voted to raise taxes in his town,” and that McCann is a “Tea Party chameleon who refuses to say where he stands on issues, including the disastrous Tax Hike Bill.”

Lonegan, the ‘true conservative’

Steve Lonegan
Lonegan, 62, describes himself as a true conservative. He lost a 2014 primary race running to the right of Tom MacArthur in the 3rd District, in South Jersey. MacArthur is considered among the more conservative members of the New Jersey delegation.

“Conservatism is about the value of the individual,” Lonegan said. The liberal is about big government and sacrificing individual rights for the good of the whole.”

He supports the Trump tax cuts as a way to generate economic growth, and he wants to cut the size of government and reduce regulations that strangle business.

Lonegan supports a border wall, because it would stem the flow not only of immigrants, but also of drugs, and it would enhance security. He also would require all new immigrants to be sponsored, to prove they have a “roof over their head and an income,”

Lonegan, who lives in Hackensack, is staunchly pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage.

“The pro-life issue is very important to me,” he said. “If you can’t make (liberals) recognize the value of human life, I don’t trust them on anything else. If you are willing to make the unborn a bargaining chip in politics, you are willing to sell out anything. To me this is a fundamental issue of value.”

Lonegan, who served as state chairman for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said Trump is doing an excellent job and he has “turned out to be he most conservative president we’ve had.”

McCann and Lonegan have both been endorsed by past members of the Trump team, and by notable conservatives.

McCann, a ‘constitutional conservative’

John McCann
McCann, 58, describes himself as “a constitutional conservative” who is pro-life and a supporter of gun rights. He supports Trump’s plan to build a border wall between Mexico and the southern states, and wants to make the Trump tax cuts permanent, while fixing the caps on state and property-tax deductions that have hit district residents hard.

The SALT issue — state and local taxes — must be addressed, he said, because it could damage the housing market in the district by increasing annual costs. If taxes cannot be deducted on federal tax forms, he argues, it will cause locals to pay more in federal taxes and could make it harder to sell houses. That would drive down prices and could lead to a cascade of effects: increased tax appeals, drop in local revenue, cuts in services.

His biggest concern, however, is what he calls a “sort-of coup” by the federal bureaucracy as officials from the FBI and the intelligence community have attempted to undercut the presidency.

Trump, he said, has been the “most effective president in my lifetime,” meaning he has been achieving the goals he set out to achieve. And, like Lonegan, McCann calls Gottheimer a liberal “Clintonista” and leftist.

“Having another Republican in Congress will further the Trump agenda,” he said. “Having a Democrat in Congress doesn’t do that.”

Who can beat Gottheimer?

The primary is about “selecting a candidate who can beat Gottheimer in November,” McCann said, and Lonegan’s “nastiness and his willingness to say anything” disqualifies “Lie again, lose again Lonegan.”

Lonegan, McCann said, has proven he is not a winning candidate, having lost multiple races in recent years. His campaign in April called for Lonegan to leave the race because of his past use of a homophobic slur against a Bogota councilman a decade ago.

“Lonegan’s comments go beyond the point of tough ‘political talk’ and into an area that is beneath the office he is pursuing,” he said.

Lonegan responded by questioning McCann’s conservative bona fides and saying McCann should be standing with Lonegan against the newspaper, which has been critical of Trump and other Republicans.

Shifting demographics

It is unclear how these kinds of attacks will play out in a district that has become more centrist in recent years, Jenkins said. She is loath to make predictions, but she thinks Lonegan and McCann may be running against the district’s shifting demographics.

“The more centrist — fiscally conservative and socially tolerant — candidates are more likely to do well,” she said.

Lonegan has the lion’s share of resources and name recognition, which makes him the frontrunner, but “I would not count (McCann) out.”

McCann acknowledges that Republicans are being outraised so far, but expects that to change after he wins the primary.

“This district is being targeted by the national party as one it wants to win back,” McCann said. “Raising money after the primary will be a lot easier than it has been for the primary. We anticipate that all Republicans will unite behind me.”

Lonegan, for his part, is confident not only that he’ll win the nomination, but also that he’ll supplant Gottheimer as the district’s representative in Congress.

“In 2013, I ran a big, brutal race against Booker, and I was the underdog,” he said. “I was way down in the polls and was outspent. I closed the gap (losing by 11 percentage points). And I won the Fifth District, despite everything.”