New Jersey’s most competitive congressional race of 2016 has a centrist Democrat mounting a serious challenge to one of the solidly blue state’s most vociferously right-wing representatives. But history shows that when a partisan outlier wins in a conservative district, a rightward drift tends to follow. With the 5th district only in play because of 2010 redistricting brought several Democratic Bergen County towns into Garret’s territory and the former Microsoft executive’s fundraising muscle, how much will Gottheimer be able to diverge from Garrett on policy in the event of a victory on election day?
Gottheimer’s case recalls that of the late U.S. Representative John Adler, who won his seat in the right-leaning 3rd congressional district back in 2009. That district, now back in Republican control under congressman Tom MacArthur, offered Adler coattails during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign only to see him vote against Obamacare.
Adler worked a twofold strategy of voting for legislation that reflected the policies of his Republican predecessor and separating himself from Obama. Gottheimer, aiming to overtake a longtime incumbent in a district thickly planted with conservatives for whom any tax increase is anathema, would likely have to do the same if and when Hillary Clinton’s proposed tax hike on high earners goes to the floor. Clinton holds a significant but not decisive advantage in recent polls.
A tea party conservative whose Wall Street donors fled after Politico reported his hostility to supporting gay Republican candidates for office, Garrett cuts an easy figure to attack. His vote against a spending bill that would have authorized additional federal funding for police and firemen also put him on the defensive. Gottheimer has so far been able to campaign on the strength of his differences from the man he called a “bigot” at their most recent debate.
Hanging on to seat, particularly Garrett is free to run again in 2020, could be more of a challenge than riding the momentum of the congressman’s very bad year. Without a presidential race to drive turnout those slim Democratic gains in the district’s eastern corner could stop being enough to outweigh Garrett’s support from the fringe—Garrett may have lost whole swathes of historically right-leaning groups with his police and fire vote, but the far northwest corner of the state will still be home to a substantial reactionary and evangelical base.
Courting the wealthy moderates who round it out will be Gottheimer’s best strategy. With over half of the district earning six-figure incomes according to the 2010 census, opposing Clinton’s fiscal policies will likely be his only hope. If Gottheimer is in Adler’s position during a Clinton administration, bet on him to oppose her plan to raise $400 to $500 billion by raising taxes on the wealthy.
If Gottheimer can prove his mettle to high earners, he may not need to placate the fringe if he defeats Garrett and Clinton takes the White House. In the event of a victory for Donald Trump, however, all bets are off.