Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, But What if we’re Wrong?
The above title of a book by Chuck Klosterman seems particularly pertinent to the presidential election result, but is equally so with the CD5 congressional race. By 2016 the district had changed and Republican Scott Garrett’s history of extreme positions caught up with him. Josh Gottheimer (D), with money, visibility, turnout, organization, a centrist approach, nuanced messaging, and a strategic focus on location, shined a bright light on Garrett’s deficiencies and espoused the more moderate positions of today’s CD5 residents. With Gottheimer, Garrett and an Independent on the ballot, Gottheimer won the race with 50.4%, Garret received 47.4%, and the Independent got 2.2%.
By raising substantial funds early, and gaining support of the county leaders Gottheimer had avoided a contested primary. Also he had received national attention which brought him into the DCCC’s Red to Blue Program. Nonetheless he needed more funds to increase momentum, particularly to inform and mobilize the Democratic base. As mentioned in Part II long before the primary, Gottheimer was engaged in serious fundraising. An advisor of his had said, “Campaign visibility and voter turnout are key to winning this race,” and ultimately, “Money will dictate if Josh can win.” After the primary Gottheimer entered into hyperdrive.
MONEY: During the run-up to the election in the four months through November 19 he had burned through $2 million and still had another $2 million to spend in the final three weeks. Some might say Gottheimer “bought the election,” but with Garrett’s history of raising prodigious sums and CD5 being America’s most expensive media market, he knew he had to raise big bucks.
TURNOUT: The total turnout in 2016 was a disappointment. CD5 total registered voters in 2016 had increased by 6% over the prior presidential election year, 2012. However the total turnout in 2016 decreased to 61.3% from 63.3% in 2012. Nonetheless, to Gottheimer’s credit, the number of registered Democrats had increased in 2016 by 19.5%. The final election results had Gottheimer winning 158,045 votes vs. Garrett with 148,398 votes. In comparison with 2012, Gottheimer won 21.5% more votes than the 2012 Democratic candidate, and Garrett in 2016 lost 11.4% from 2012.
VISIBILITY: Constituents long accustomed to checking the Garrett voter box had to be told and told again why Garrett was wrong for the district. Gottheimer achieves a dramatically new high in CD5 with visibility. Facebook and personal appearances were important. However, his money spent on TV commercials far exceeded any of his predecessors. At the same time he gained support from several PAC’s which aired anti-Garrett commercials:
- Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC): $1.5 million
- House Majority PAC: $2.6 million
- Environmental Defense Action: $205,000
- Working Families Party: $122,000
ORGANIZATION: As early as 2015 but more so later he develops a first-rate, professional operation. He uses a variety of services including Global Strategy Group for polling, Kristin Heidkamp, Jake Briggs, and Silver Strategies for fundraising, ActBlue for credit processing, PCMS for accounting and Next Level Partners for FEC compliance. His staff includes Campaign Manager Alex Ball, Senior Advisor Jordan Kramer, and Deputy Finance Director Taline Ohannaian as well as assistance from national Democratic headquarters.
CENTRIST POSITION: He knew that because of CD5’s voting pattern he needed to attract Independents and even some Republicans. He maintains a centrist position, much like what Democrat Bill Pascrell adopted as the former mayor of Paterson and then as incoming congressman. Particularly early on Pascrelll was frequently accused of not adhering to progressive ideals.
He even goes after the Republican registered voters who by 2016 are now only slight more than those who are Democrats. He launches a Republicans for Josh website, where he includes the same positions he provides in his regular website and lists some Republicans who support him. He arranges a fundraising event hosted by James Cicconi, George H. W. Bush’s former Deputy Chief of Staff. The website states, “Nearly a third of Josh’s in-district donors in the second quarter of 2016 come from people who aren’t registered Democrats.”
MESSAGING: A former Garrett staffer had said, “Even before the Tea Party was a thing, we had Scott Garrett.” Gottheimer frequently used the Tea Party moniker for his opponent. He would call Garrett a bigot for anti-LGBT sentiments. He spoke of the “Garrett Tax” which reflected Garrett’s propensity to vote against bills that would direct more federal money to New Jersey. He emphasized that Garrett had consistently voted against the interests of his constituents.
In contrast, Gottheimer’s personal message was nuanced. Some of his stated goals were to “Bring new jobs to the district, reduce tax rates, cut regulations, fix our roads, bridges, tunnels and trains, treat everyone equally no matter what their background, race, sexual orientation or station in life, protect Medicare and Social Security, invest in education, STEM and college affordability, and support women’s reproductive rights and fight any attempt to get between a woman and her doctor when it comes to making personal healthcare choices.”
STRATEGIC FOCUSING ON LOCATION: The larger geographic portion of CD5 is in the West. It’s rural and has long been a lock for conservative Garrett. However 75% of CD5 voters are in eastern suburban/semi-urban Bergen County. Here there are more Democrats but also a sizable number of Republicans. Winning over this district was not going to be easy. Garrett had long been a formidable fundraiser and vote getter. In 2012 Democratic U. S. Senator Robert Menendez won the district by only two percentage points (51-49) while President Obama lost by three points (48-51). So Gottheimer visited and raised some money from the West, but focused his efforts on Republicans, Independents and Democrats in Bergen County. Politics as in real estate is all about location.
In the race’s last days an anti-Semitic flyer emerged showing Gottheimer with devil’s horns which resulted in condemnations and counter condemnations. Garrett had been portraying Gottheimer as too liberal for the district, accusing him of being a typical tax-and-spend Democrat. However, it was too late. Gottheimer had said all along Garrett was too conservative and extreme for CD5. As the book title mentioned above suggests, we should not think of the present as if it were the past. Things had changed in CD5.
Now it’s Gottheimer’s district to hold on to, and the next election is just two years away. As he won by only 3 points and CD5 has slightly more Republicans than Democrats it may continue as a swing district, unlike most other NJ Democratic districts. Keeping CD5 in the Democratic column is not assured.
Gottheimer will be working with both a Republican President and Republican Congress, a tough road to hoe. He says he wants to work across the aisle. Let’s hope he also remains staunch in support of the progressive ideals he has espoused. One of his final events was to have Representative John Lewis speak in Hackensack. Gottheimer had included a speech of Lewis in his book Ripples of Freedom and would do well to emulate the courage and principles of this civil rights hero.
SOURCES: NJ Division of Elections, Federal Election Commission, GottheimerforCongress.com, Open Secrets, Linked In, dcleaks, NY Times, various NJ media, and my past on-site reporting and commentary in Blue Jersey.