In the Democrats’ fight to retake the House of Representatives this year, the 11th Congressional District is considered ground zero for a flip from red to blue. It pits Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor, and mother of four, against Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, a lawyer and father of seven.
Twelve-term incumbent Republican Rodney P. Frelinghuysen — the chair of the powerful House Appropriations committee — surprised everyone last winter when he announced that he would not run for re-election. He gave no reason for his resignation, but he had faced well-organized opposition from constituents and a hard-campaigning Sherrill, who announced her candidacy in spring 2017. Despite serving as Appropriations chair, he also faced opposition within his own party.
The district leans Republican, but Democrats think they have a good chance of winning the seat because neither candidate can boast incumbency, the 11th only narrowly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and Sherrill has become one of the faces of change nationally. There is also a grassroots group, NJ 11th for Change, that has been working to turn the seat blue since 2016, and Sherrill has a substantial war chest.
Sherrill, whose full name is Rebecca Michelle Sherrill but uses the nickname Mikie, is 46 and has experience in Middle Eastern and Russian foreign policy, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a law degree from Georgetown University. She served as assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey specializing in police community relations from 2015 to 2016.
Webber, 46, has served in the Assembly since 2008. A lawyer with Webber McGill LLC in Whippany, he graduated from Harvard Law School and clerked with Justice Peter Verniero of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He also served as the state Republican chair from 2009 to 2011.
On very different pages
The two candidates sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Sherrill has been campaigning on the Democratic platform of stricter gun laws, protection of women’s healthcare, and the need to address climate change while Webber is running on the need for tighter restrictions on immigration, limited government, and defunding Planned Parenthood.
The suburban district covers portions of Essex, Passaic, and Sussex counties with Morris County at the center. It’s a wealthy, well-educated, majority-white region with a median household income of $108,260. The 11th has been reliably Republican since 1984 but only went for President Trump in 2016 by less than a percentage point.
Webber’s voting record has won him favor among those he represents in the Assembly, but the district is much wider and some of his stances may not play as well to Democratic and independent voters. As well as being pro gun-rights and anti-abortion, Webber was one of only two votes against the state’s Equal Pay bill last March. Webber was recently designated a “Champion of the Taxpayer” by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy organization funded by David and Charles Koch. Legislators receive the award for voting in line with AFP’s positions on many issues.
A recent NJ Spotlight analysis of election spending shows most of the cash in the north Jersey district is flowing to Democrats and to House races specifically. In fact, campaign finance records show that Sherrill has taken in 13 times more cash than Democratic nominees from 2010 through 2016. Sherrill currently has $2,916,569 cash on hand, dwarfing Webber’s $171,721.
With large amounts of money pouring into the race and much at stake, the candidates are not holding back in their campaign tactics. The candidates’ recriminations have been relentless with the Webber campaign calling Sherrill “unhinged” and Sherill’s team saying that Webber is a threat to women’s reproductive rights.
The Webber campaign has embraced what some categorize as “Trumpian” tactics. These include name-calling with language like “corrupt Bob Menendez” and “sanctuary city-loving Phil Murphy.” Webber tries continually to tie Sherrill to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez. The New Jersey Republican State Committee quietly launched a website earlier this month called MikieMurphyMenendez.com, attacking Sherrill and linking her to reported shortcomings of Menendez and Gov. Phil Murphy. Trump himself endorsed the candidate this month, tweeting “@JayWebberNJ is running for Congress in the 11th District of New Jersey. He is outstanding in every way. Strong on Borders, loves our Military and our Vets. Big Crime fighter. Jay has my Full and Total Endorsement!”
Webber has also aligned himself with Vice President Mike Pence through his positions against LGBTQ rights. In 2013, Webber voted against prohibiting sexual-orientation conversion therapy and in 2012 voted against gay marriage, both stances Pence supported as governor of Indiana. Pence stumped for Webber in August; it cost $25,000 for a pair of tickets to his fundraising lunch, a photo with Pence, and admission to a special roundtable.
While Webber is drawing closer to the current White House administration, Sherrill has received support from the former one. Vice President Joe Biden recently spoke at a rally for Sherrill alongside Murphy.
Significant differences on immigration
“I’m here excited about campaigning for a woman of incredible integrity, decency, and honor,” Biden said of Sherrill. “This is going to be the most important election that any of us have voted for so far.”
Sherrill has also drawn endorsements from The New York Times editorial board, VoteVets.org political action committee, and the pro-choice EMILY’s List. Locally, she is backed by NJ 11th For Change, which is mobilizing voters in her favor.
Two issues that highlight the campaigns’ differences are immigration and the state and local tax deduction. Webber is firmly in the Trump camp on immigration, calling for tighter border restrictions, an end to sanctuary cities, and stopping family reunification efforts known to conservatives as “chain migration.” Sherrill, meanwhile, said in an interview with NJTV that “we can improve our border security, while at the same time not taking children away from their parents and really, still, not being able to get those children back to their parents.”
Their conflicting views on immigration came to a head last month when Webber claimed that Sherrill held a rally supporting the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — an oft-used rallying call for Republicans seeking to control the narrative around immigration.
ICE and SALT
“My opponent has organized rallies calling for the abolition of ICE, organized rallies calling for open borders. [There] is a stark contrast between me and Mikie Sherrill,” Webber said at a press conference.
Sherrill has refuted his claims repeatedly, saying “I don’t believe in abolishing ICE.”
With regard to taxes, both Webber and Sherrill have said they oppose the SALT cap, but Webber has said he supports the Republicans’ tax reforms overall.
The cap “was part of a larger tax package that benefits the residents of the 11th Congressional District more than any other district in the state of New Jersey,” Webber said in an interview with NJTV. “There’s a $6,000 tax cut that the average family of four in this district gets because of that tax reform package.”
Both candidates are fighting to get their messages across, sending press releases sometimes twice a day. But with registered Democratic voters numbering 159,200 and Republican voters sitting at 168,434, the race will be decided by whichever camp can get their supporters to the polls and win over some of the 216,936 unaffiliated contingent.