So far, Democrats haven’t seemed anxious to field and financially support a real challenger to Rep. E. Scott Garrett. But amongst Republicans, there’s discontent with Garrett brewing just beneath the surface of the fifth congressional district.
Some complain of Garrett’s steadfast conservative ideological commitment which has led to cast votes against bills considered no-brainers to Democrats and more moderate Republicans. Whether this is a strength or weakness is up for debate, however.
What’s certain is that Garrett has alienated at least some Republicans in the four counties that make up his district by backing the wrong people or staying neutral in some divisive primary races – even if few politicians and operatives will venture to say it on the record.
Moreover, his detractors say, he sticks to his conservative principles but doesn’t play for the team– leaving Republicans to fend for themselves in areas where the party desperately lacks leadership.
“That’s because Scott has a brain and only someone without one could vote as Democrats do,” said Michael Patrick Carroll, a GOP Assemblyman from Morris County.
But Republican political consultant Thom Ammirato, who works for GOP candidates in Bergen County, disagrees.
“In a party that is starved for leadership right now, Scott Garrett hasn’t exactly stepped up to the plate,” said Ammirato. “I think there’s a sense that he’s in sort of a self-preservation mode, and he’s unwilling to put himself out for the good of the party, and I think that’s not very smart politics right now.”
In the run up to June’s state legislative primaries, Garrett made some choices that could hurt him politically. In district 24, he backed Assemblyman Guy Gregg over the Steve Oroho, who was backed by the powerful Littell family and emerged the victor in the primary battle.
Ammirato said that Garrett could have asserted his leadership to try to broker a deal between two factions of the Republican Party in the 40th legislative district, where a slate backed by former Bergen County Republican Organization Chairman Guy Talarico ran a costly primary battle against Kevin O’Toole, Dave Russo and Scott Rumana.
“A lot of politicians hate to make tough decisions, but sometimes to be a leader you have to,” said Ammirato. “And he didn’t.”
But any Republican who wants to challenge Garrett will face a daunting campaign. Garrett’s ideological underpinnings give him an automatic conservative base that will turn out for him in any election, rain or shine. The last time he faced a significant primary challenge was 2002, when he defeated his challengers, moderate Assemblyman Dave Russo and conservative State Senator Gerald Cardinale.
“Scott Garrett appears to be a very organized, focused person, and that he can get his priorities straight,” said Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project. “He hasn’t been apologetic at all about being a more conservative republican, and he seems to have managed the base that’s been his support in the northwest part of the district.”
And if anyone does decide to take on Garrett, they’ll have to have a lot of money. As safe as the fifth district is for Garrett, he always runs scared, shelling out well over $1 million for each his three elections.
That challenger won’t be Steve Oroho, who told PoliticsNJ.com that he’s backing Garrett’s re-election “100%.” And although Garrett backed the rival of Virginia Littell’s chosen candidate, the former state Republican Chairwoman said that she will support Garrett for reelection.
“It was difficult beating an incumbent like Guy, but we did what we did and we beat him fair and square…It doesn’t serve you well to carry a grudge for something when you’ve been successful,” said Littell, who said that people had called her about the prospect of running against Garrett. “I don’t want people to get into a primary battle to make the consultants rich. I want to recruit candidates that have a chance – I think that Garrett is really solid.”
That leaves Russo as the most talked about potential primary challenger, though other names come up, like Bob Schroeder (who, based on his flying a banner with his name on it down the shore, is more likely interested in running for governor). Also mentioned are former Freeholder Lisa Randall and former Paramus Councilman Keith Zakheim, an ordained Rabbi whose father was the CFO of the U.S. Department of State under Donald Rumsfeld.
Russo won’t rule out challenging Garrett again, but said he’s not giving it much thought while focusing on this year’s election cycle — Which, for him at least, should be a cakewalk.
“We’re concerned with winning this election for Assembly and Senate, and we’re also in the 40th district trying to actively help the local republican candidates in our district and in Bergen County in particular to try to win the local elections,” said Russo. “So we’re doing that, and then whatever happens, happens.”
Rob Ortiz, the recently elected Bergen County Republican Chairman, who Garrett did not endorse, said he had not thought about whether his organization would give Garrett the line on Election Day.
“I haven’t even thought about it because we’re focused on the 2007 elections, which are three weeks away. I’m not even looking at 2008 yet,” said Ortiz.
Conservative strategist Rick Shaftan, a Garrett admirer, said that the Congressman is about as close to invulnerable as a Republican can be in a primary.
“No one is going to run against Scott Garrett in a primary, and if they are it’s someone who’s egged on by a political consultant who needs to make a mortgage payment,” said Shaftan.
Garrett could not be reached for comment.