The most heated congressional race of this presidential race is coming to a close, with Democratic newcomer Josh Gottheimer presenting the fiercest and most well-funded opponent that far-right U.S. Representative Scott Garrett has ever faced. The changing demographics in the conservative 5th district have worked against Garrett, but a solid base of white evangelicals could help him swim against the tide on election day.
That base is due in large part to Garrett’s solicitations of fringe groups like the Oath Keepers and the influential Lafayette Federated Church in Lafayette, NJ. With its fiery anti-gay and anti-semitic rhetoric, the church could have proven an even bigger liability than his alleged comments disparaging the national GOP for its willingness to fund gay candidates.
His affiliation with the church, whose pastors have described Jews as “god rejectors” and “pagans” in sermons videotaped and obtained by Observer, could have led Democratic operatives to try and orchestrate Garrett’s Jeremiah Wright moment. The controversial preacher was a major stumbling block for President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, with Obama eventually leaving Wright’s church altogether as Wright made comments about “”Jews” keeping him from contacting Obama. The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates characterized those comments as “crude conspiratorial antisemitism.”
TheLafayette Federated Church heartily endorsed Garrett earlier this year, with one preacher saying to the congregation that the 13-year veteran congressman “takes ridicule and hurt because of he stands on the values of God.”
Preachers Aaron Robb, Ryan Drew, and Glenn Cohrs have also, at various points, described AIDS as “the end result of homosexuality and sin,” and other non-evangelical denominations like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “sub-Christian.”
Obama turned his liability into an asset when he delivered perhaps the best-remembered speech of his career, “A More Perfect Union.” Garrett, whose campaign has hit hard with attacks on Gottheimer’s personal life, would likely never have to.
When it comes to scandals originating from the pulpit, it helps to be white and it helps to keep it local.
The content of the sermons would shock no one with even passing familiarity with the evangelical fringe, a group that black and white voters alike know from the peak of its political clout in the 2000s. While distasteful, Garrett’s ties to the church are never going to shock a majority-white congressional district the way footage of Wright’s sermons jarred a majority-white country.
Meanwhile Garrett’s ties to the Oath Keepers, the group recently let off the hook for a weeks-long armed standoff with police at a wildlife refuge in Oregon, could still sway the outcome on November 8. Both the administration of Republican Governor Chris Christie and the Southern Poverty Law Center list the group as dangerous extremists, with the state of New Jersey slotting them onto a list of domestic terror threats.
Garrett knows his constituency, and offering his name to groups like the Oath Keepers and the Lafayette Federated Church helped him to stay in Washington for as long as he has. But while his association with the church remained an obscurity to all but its congregation this year, it will only become more difficult to hang on by an indignant, reactionary minority.
A recent poll from the Gottheimer campaign showed Garrett with a 35% favorability rating, with 43% of respondents unfavorable. Women, young voters and minorities made up the bulk of those unfavorable responses. Gottheimer, meanwhile, holds an 11-point lead among women, a 3-point lead among registered Independents, and a 16-point lead in more moderate Bergen County, which represents over 70% of the district’s voters.
As the district changes, so will Garrett’s chances. But don’t count on the congressman to cut and run unless things get crude.