In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, challenger Josh Gottheimer has hinged his campaign on an appeal to the values of his voter base. From the beginning, Gottheimer centralized that theme and made his campaign slogan “Jersey values,” something that has been oft repeated in the countless ads the candidate has aired in the region. For Gottheimer, the slogan was an early way to differentiate himself from incumbent Congressman Scott Garrett, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Gottheimer has used the line to draw contrast between himself and Garrett on a number of topics including Garrett’s stance on LGBT issues and his voting record on issues like Hurricane Sandy relief aid, penalties for sexual predators, lack of early support for the Zadroga Act (aimed at helping first responders from 9/11) and his vote against an amendment to ban confederate flags in military cemeteries (which the congressman says is protected by the first amendment). According to Gottheimer’s argument—and an ad run by the House Majority PAC— Garret’s views are “perfect for rural Alabama” rather than New Jersey.
But, while Gottheimer has hinged his campaign on differentiating himself from Garrett, the incumbent has flipped the script on the challenger. Garrett has painted Gottheimer as the quintessential Washington insider, often reminding voters that the challenger has connections to the Clintons from his time as a speechwriter, something that resonates for many in an election where the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, is considered untrustworthy by many. He has claimed that Gottheimer wants to raise taxes, something that Garrett says will hurt residents of New Jersey’s fifth district, many of whom are already tax weary.
As with Gottheimer, Garrett’s ads have tried to paint his opponent as out of step with what New Jersey voters want. One omnipresent TV ad highlighted an incident from a DC condo with claims that Gottheimer “aggressively intimidated and assaulted” a woman who was living there. Gottheimer has called the lawsuit “frivolous” and no charges were ever filed. Even so, Garrett used the incident as a way to claim that Gottheimer’s values “are not New Jersey values.”
While both candidates have not been hesitant to attack their opponents, the crux of both campaigns seems to be an attempt to appeal to the soul of the voters. Amid the slew of negative campaign ads, claims of bribery, allegations of “pay-to-play” violations, one thing has been clear: both Garrett and Gottheimer want voters to believe that the opposing candidate is fundamentally at odds with both their views and their own personal interests.
The battle over voter values in congressional district five has also been seen on the national level between Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In that race, the candidates have also been openly critical of one another and have often resorted to emotional appeals to voters regarding their opposition. That national climate has trickled down into the New Jersey district where both candidates have pledged that they support their party’s nominee.
New Jersey’s fifth congressional district race has been one of the most watched races in the state during this election cycle. While it generally leans right, this year the election has been deemed a “toss up” so both Garrett and Gottheimer have been fighting tooth and nail in the hopes of having Tuesday end with their favored outcome. Garrett has been in office for 13 years and while Democrats have put significant effort into the district in the past, Garrett has proved victorious every time.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.