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Anatomy of an upset: Gottheimer unseats Garrett
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Anatomy of an upset: Gottheimer unseats Garrett

Josh Gottheimer announces his candidacy for Congress during a press conference in Northvale on Feb. 8.
Josh Gottheimer announces his candidacy for Congress during a press conference in Northvale on Feb. 8.

For seven straight terms, Republican Scott Garrett trounced his Democratic opponents for New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, so much so that observers considered him virtually unbeatable.

Then, on Nov. 8, a political newcomer, Josh Gottheimer, reversed the pattern of history.

He defeated Garrett by more than 10,000 votes — 156,863 to 146,643 — with Libertarian Party candidate Claudio Belusic finishing a distant third with 6,890. 

One big reason for Gottheimer’s success was money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — perceiving Garrett to be vulnerable for the first time — gave a larger infusion of money to Gottheimer’s campaign than it had to the Republican’s previous rivals. The DCCC provided more than $1.5 million for television advertising alone. 

Because he had worked as speech writer in Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, the Clinton family was also helpful in Gottheimer’s fund-raising efforts. So were his friends — old and new — said Adam Silverstein, a consultant and general strategist to the campaign. 

“We got a lot of campaign funds from Josh’s network of friends and supporters and a lot from people within the district who gave contributions for the first time,” he told NJJN in a Nov. 14 phone interview. 

Other observers suggested that Garrett may have been his own worst enemy by voicing ideas and casting votes that were unpopular with many constituents.

A Republican familiar with the Garrett campaign who asked not to be identified told NJJN that the Republican’s “very, very conservative” voting record damaged his chances for re-election in ways it never had before.

One of his “biggest mistakes” was to vote against the Zadroga Act, a 2011 law that allocated $3.2 billion to compensate victims and provide health care for the 9/11 World Trade Center attack survivors and first responders. The bill was renewed in 2015 with another $4.5 billion, which Garrett also opposed. 

Those votes allowed Gottheimer to charge that the congressman “has not been there” for first responders and enabled the Democrat to win the endorsements of firefighter and police unions that in other years might have gone to the Republican, said the source.

Another key issue was Garrett’s incurring the wrath of the state’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community. In 2015, Garrett refused to pay dues to the National Republican Campaign Committee because he believed the GOP election arm actively backed gay candidates.

“That really hurt him,” said the Republican insider. “He may have believed it but he should never have said it publicly. He is not a bigot. He is a very religious man” who has issues with homosexuality and marriage equality. 

In August, the congressman told NJJN, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I believe in the right of all Americans to run for Congress. Period.” He called Gottheimer’s criticism “partisan attacks on religious freedom.” 

But Garrett’s publicly alienating first responders and the LGBT community “gave Gottheimer the ability to really hose him,” said the Republican source.

In reaction to Garrett’s statement about gay candidates, Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest LGBT rights group, demonstrated in front of Garrett’s Glen Rock district office frequently and lobbied the Republican’s prior supporters on Wall Street to withdraw their financial support. 

According to a report by National Public Radio, in 2012 and 2014 financial firms donated an average of $600,000 per cycle to Garrett’s campaigns. “After his anti-gay remarks, that number dropped by half. Capital One, Goldman Sachs, and the big Japanese brokerage firm Nomura all stopped payments to Garrett’s political action committee,” wrote NPR reporter Joe Rose on Oct. 29.

“Garrett took very out-of-touch positions,” said Silverstein. “Even Republicans who are fiscal conservatives felt that they don’t care who loves who or who marries who. When presented with a pro-business Democrat, it wasn’t hard for them to make the stretch and vote for Josh.”

Gottheimer was “a very aggressive candidate, much more aggressive than previous candidates,” Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, told NJJN.

The fact that it was a presidential year “brought out Democrats who might not always come out to vote,” said Dworkin. “Garrett had to spend time ensuring he had unified party support after the rift over Republican candidates who happen to be gay. Rather than focusing on attacking his opponent, Garrett had to deal with that issue.”

Whether Gottheimer can hold onto a congressional seat that has been occupied by Republicans since the 1980s remains to be seen, said Dworkin. “Two years from now, when the GOP is planning its election strategy, the first thing it will look into is the whether they can retake a district they have held for close to 40 years. They feel it is ‘their’ district and they will look to someone who will win it back.”

Will Garret run again? “This district is so sprawling” —covering 43 towns in Bergen County, 19 in Sussex, and 15 in Warren — “and it requires someone with a tremendous amount of money or name recognition. Garrett has name recognition. He doesn’t have to spend millions of dollars introducing himself,” Dworkin said.

Neither Gottheimer, who was attending an orientation session for freshmen members of Congress, or Garrett was available for comment. 

Gottheimer, a 41-year-old attorney and native of North Caldwell, resides in Wyckoff with his wife, Maria Tusk, and their two children. He is a Reform Jew, a strong supporter of Israel, and an opponent of the multinational agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. 

Garrett, who attends an evangelical church in Lafayette Township, lives in Wantage with his wife, Ellen. They have two grown children. 

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