With the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) counting on New Jersey to prove pivotal in this year’s race to flip the House of Representatives from red to blue, only one district out of five currently represented by Republicans remains uncompetitive, according to election trackers. But that’s not stopping two contenders in central New Jersey’s 4th district from running against each other in the June 5 primary to unseat 38-year incumbent Chris Smith.
“The road to winning the House is through New Jersey. This is ground zero,” says favored primary winner Josh Welle, who notes that although Smith has won all of his Congressional campaigns since 2000 with at least 63 percent of the vote, the congressman has never taken second place when it comes to fundraising or been challenged by a military veteran. Until now.
“Incumbency is the kryptonite that will bring him down,” the 38-year-old Welle says. “His constituents know he’s mailing it in and that he’s out of touch. We need a new generation of leaders at a time when our country is at a crossroads.”
Though the DCCC added then removed the district that includes most of Monmouth County and parts of Mercer and Ocean counties from its national Red to Blue initiative to target vulnerable Republicans, the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections all predict the district will safely stay in Republican control come the general election on November 6. Smith is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
But before Welle or his primary opponent, Jim Keady, can take on Smith, they first must face each other. Democratic delegates from all three counties have voted to give Welle — a combat veteran and owner of a software-engineering firm that does business with the defense department — the official party line by a margin 20 percentage points. Keady, a well-known liberal activist, tavern owner, and former teacher who found 15 minutes of nationwide fame when then-Gov. Chris Christie told him to, “Sit down and shut up,” at a town hall meeting after Hurricane Sandy, boasts that he’s outraised Welle and Smith in donations from within the district.
A third candidate, Mike Keeling, has stopped campaigning and has asked his supporters to vote for Keady, a fellow progressive who doesn’t have what Keeling believes are the troubling ties to establishment Democrats and the defense industry that Welle does. He says he’ll consider running as an independent if Welle wins the primary.
Though Welle says he’s a 4th district New Jersey native and official resident who traveled the world for military service and education and only lived in Northern Virginia for about a year, his absence has raised questions about his residency, particularly because it mirrors a decades-long criticism that’s dogged Smith, whose opponents claim he lives full-time in Northern Virginia and visits his district rarely.
Smith spokesperson Mary McDermott Noonan says those attacks are a lie. “The congressman and his wife have a house in Hamilton. They vote in Hamilton. They are New Jersey licensed drivers. They each have been called for jury duty in Mercer County ... And of course, they pay New Jersey income and property taxes. Since Congress meets in Washington, Chris and his wife made the decision to have a house near D.C. as well," she said.
Keady worked three stints in six years teaching theology and social justice and spent a month living with economically oppressed laborers in Indonesia. A divorced father who raises his nine-year-old daughter, Keady launched a nonprofit called Educating for Justice, which, he says, organizes sweatshop workers and educates American students “about the seedy underbelly of globalization and multinational corporations.” Beyond speaking at more than 500 American universities on this subject, the 46-year-old lends grassroot support to labor unions, women’s causes, and gun reform.
He says, “My opponent says he’s taking advantage of a moment. I’ve been at this for 20 years. This is about building a movement.”
When asked to name his top three priorities if he were to be elected, Keady quickly lists universal healthcare as the one he says voters along the campaign trail consistently mention first. He promises to lobby on Day 1 of his term for the proposed Medicare For All Act, which he says would reform the “national embarrassment” of two million Americans per year filing bankruptcy brought on by medical bills.
Next, he pledges to work toward “getting big money out of politics” and addressing climate change by “pushing back against the dirty energy companies” and creating a “green industrial revolution” by making massive investments in renewable energy sources.
“We need to unleash a New Green Deal,” he says, referencing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic programs that aimed to restore prosperity to America during the Great Depression.
Welle, who calls himself a centrist and denies being the establishment candidate, also supports greater access to healthcare, along with sensible corporate incentives to lure green tech and sustainable-energy companies to the district. He wants to train the state’s higher-education students to become entrepreneurs and to fill high-skilled positions in fields like cybersecurity, data analytics, and cloud computing. He also says he will work with the governor to attract ecommerce and biotech businesses.
“Smith is not working with Trenton to address economic shortfalls in Central Jersey,” he says of his presumptive November opponent.
According to analyses conducted by NJ Spotlight and the Census Bureau, economically, the 4th District closely paralleled the state average in 2016, with median household income at $76,000 annually. Academically, 37 percent of residents older than 25 in both the district and the state had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Both the district and the state tally those older than 64 at approximately 16 percent of the population, though racially, the district skews slightly more white at 78 percent.
Politically, the district has voted Republican for decades. Its 126,000 Democrats, 140,000 Republicans, and 235,000 unaffiliated voters elected President Trump by a 56 percent to 41 percent margin and last went for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, when they favored Al Gore by a narrow four points. While voter registration logs show the state has become bluer since the last presidential election, District 4 has moved in the opposite direction, gaining 7,225 Republicans, compared with 5,086 Democrats in that time.
But New Jersey voters are furious that Republicans in Congress passed a tax bill (that Smith voted against) last year that will raise taxes on 10 percent of them — more than any other state, according to the Tax Policy Center. And commuters to New York City angrily reject Trump’s vow to block federal funding for the Hudson River rail tunnel.
Is that predicted Republican backlash enough to vote an entrenched incumbent out of office after 19 terms? Welle says “yes,” and points to the fact that in 2017 he raised $181,200. But that figures is misleading, as Smith has raised $678,952, to Welle's total of $364,263 and Keady’s $269,094. Smith still has almost all his cash on hand to use in the general election.
And whichever candidate wins the primary will likely face more than just one opponent in November. In addition to the possibility of Mike Keeling running as an independent, Edward Stackhouse (aka Ed the Barber) of The Barber Party has listed himself on the ballot, and Republican Felicia Stohler, who has raised $13,300 so far, has said she’s sitting out the primary and plans to run as an independent.
Looking toward June 5, Keady says of the party-picked Welle, “We cannot let a small minority of party elites speak for our district. If you want that, the other guy is your guy. If you don’t, I’m your grassroots warrior.”
And looking past that date to the general election on November 6, Welle says of the formidable opponent he or Keady will almost surely face, “If we don’t elect a new generation of leaders to put service above party, we will lose the great democracy my friends and I deployed for.”