Can Democrats beat Garrett?

At a breakfast hosted by the Democratic State Committee, congressional candidate Camille Abate mentioned to Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean

At a breakfast hosted by the Democratic State Committee, congressional candidate Camille Abate mentioned to Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean that she is running for Congress against Scott Garrett.

“He’s the worst,” said Dean.

But despite Dean’s personal opinion, national Democrats apparently don’t think enough of it to pump many resources into a fight against him. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that they have three targets in 2008, and Garrett isn’t one of them.

But if you ranked the remaining three Republican incumbents in terms of vulnerability, there’s a good chance Garrett would be next in line.

"Congressman Garrett had made it clear that his only loyalty is to the President,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James, who cited his similar positions to the Bush administration on Iraq, stem cell research and the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan. “We believe that Congressman Garrett is a pick-up opportunity for Democrats in 2008."

The fifth district has a population dominated by the northern portion of Bergen County, which accounts for 63 percent of the district’s votes. The staunchly conservative Garrett, however, has an anchor of support in rural Sussex and Warren counties, which make up the biggest chunk of the district.

But Democrats haven’t gained much traction there. In 2004, Anne Wolfe lost to Garrett by 15.5 points. In 2006, a strong Democratic year, James E. McGreevey’s former press secretary, Paul Aronsohn, still lost by eleven points.

Still, the spread is close enough that some Democrats think that if the conditions are just right – if the Bush backlash continues to grow – then they could see a strong Democratic Presidential candidate bringing a Democratic congressional candidate to victory on his or her coattails. But if Giuliani’s is the presidential nominee, forget it.

“If Rudy Giuliani is on top of the ticket, that’s going beneficial to Republicans,” said one Democratic insider from the district.

Already, two Democrats – Abate and Dennis Shulman, a Rabbi and psychologist — have announced their intentions to challenge Garrett. But Democratic sources aren’t jumping at the opportunity to throw money behind either of them. Aronsohn, citing financial reasons, decided not to run again.

And while some are confident that Garrett could soon be vulnerable, Democrats struggle to think of a candidate who they think can take him on. So far, no serious contender has risen to the challenge.

"Scott Garrett won reelection by double digits in the midst of the worst political environment in history. To make matters worse for Democrats, the second tier opponent they recruited has dropped out. Scott Garrett is a well positioned incumbent who couldn't be any tougher to beat,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain.

But there are some people out there who Democrats feel could be decent challengers.
There’s Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, who’s popular throughout the county. But McNerney has downplayed the idea of running in 2008, if not explicitly closing the door on the idea. Another potential candidate could be Sheriff Leo McGuire, who’s expected to coast to re-election this coming November. A countywide, law-and-order candidate like him may be one who could challenge Garrett – if he can raise the money. But like McNerney, McGuire is cool to the idea.

“As difficult as it is to run for Sheriff, which I’m glad to do because I think that the fruits of our labor are being seen across the county, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to run across four counties,” said McGuire. “I have no intention or plans to run for the fifth Congressional district, to be short and sweet.”


Paramus Mayor James Tedesco is also a possible candidate. He was unavailable for comment.

That leaves Abate to wonder why party insiders aren’t taking her candidacy seriously. Especially when shortly after last year’s election, the Cook Political Report rated the seat as a “potentially competitive” R + 4.

Abate has been dismissed by Democratic insiders as too liberal to compete in this suburban and rural district. But she says it’s just the opposite – her predecessors positioned themselves as moderates, trying to compete with Garrett on defense and business issues. She thinks that her clearer stances could motivate the liberal Democratic base to get out and vote, and that recent polls showing New Jerseyans supporting some form of universal health care and a withdrawal from Iraq back her up.

And today Abate was in a circle of people posing for picture and shaking hands withliberal icon Howard Dean as he hobnobbed with State Democratic Chairman Joseph Cryan.

“It’s like dark beer and light beer. If you’re a real beer person you choose the dark beer,” said Abate.

But Abate did try to run last year, losing the primary to the more moderate Aronsohn. Abate attributes this loss to her jumping into the campaign “out of heart,” without much time or money. This time, she says, she’s ready.

“I have talked to party leaders in the state and I’ve talked ot union leaders in the state and a number of people who I consider political insiders, and I have a lot more support than you think I have,” said Abate. “They’re waiting to see how much money I can raise.”

Wolfe, the Democrat who ran against Garrett in 2004, thinks differently. She’s writing a book about her experience running called So You Want to be a Challenger. Wolfe said that a winning candidate will have to be a fiscal conservative and social moderate in a district where the geography favors Republicans.

Wolfe hasn’t ruled out another run against Garrett. But perhaps, she said, a Republican would have a good shot against him in a primary.

“It’s getting more possible for a more moderate person to win. If I were a Republican I would be seriously thinking of challenging Scott in the future,” said Wolfe.

Assemblyman David Russo, who lost the 2002 GOP primary to Garrett, actively considered a rematch two years later, but eventually declined. Some Republicans suggest that Russo could run again.

David P. Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, said it’s possible that Garrett’s conservatism – like his vote against the recent SCHIP bill, could harm him.

“The too conservative theme might be potent in 2008 in a way that it has not been before,” said Rebovich. “I don’t think the Democrats will attract conservative Republicans. What the democrats can hope for is a high turnout election which brings out lots of unaffiliated voters to send a message – a retrospective message to President Bush and to the national Republican Party.”

Garrett could not be reached for comment.

Can Democrats beat Garrett?