The question seems to come up every two years: is incumbent 5th District Rep. E. Scott Garrett vulnerable to a Democratic challenge?
This year is no exception.
Challengers during Garrett’s first three campaigns thought they had a good shot, but he managed to beat them by double digit margins each time – even if those margins have narrowed each time.
But both of the Democrats vying to take him on say that this time is different, and both have released internal polls that they say proves it.
The frontrunner in the Democratic race, blind rabbi/psychologist Dennis Shulman, reported today that he has raised $125,000 last quarter and has $245,500 cash-on-hand. That's a slowdown from his previous quarter of fundraising, but Shulman is ahead of any of Garrett's previous Democratic challengers: Paul Stuart Aronsohn, Dorothea Wolfe or Anne Sumers.
Shulman is not far behind Garrett in fundraising. Last quarter the incumbent raised 192,859.50, and he has 457,521.36 cash-on-hand.
Shulman released the results of an internal poll yesterday that his campaign says shows Garrett with anemic support in the district, which is made up of Bergen, Sussex, Passaic and Warren Counties.
The poll, which surveyed 400 likely voters in the district earlier this month and has a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percent, found that only 30 percent of respondents could identify Garrett as their Congressman.
Of those familiar with Garrett, 32 percent gave him a positive approval rating, while 41 percent gave him a negative rating. Thirty-one percent of voters said they would definitely vote to reelect Garrett, while 34 percent said they would either definitely vote against him or at least consider someone else. Thirty-five percent said they were uncertain of how they'd vote.
The poll also surveyed voters' opinions on President Bush, who only garnered an approval rating of 22%. While questions about the unpopular president could potentially color how voters see their Congressman from the same party (the poll didn't ask about John McCain), pollster Margie Omero said that the questions were shuffled so that questions about Bush were not always asked before questions about Garrett.
"What's different from previous cycles is how poorly Garrett does with his own base and how much people want a change from Bush's policies," said Omero. "The fact is that Bush's numbers are atrocious, not just bad, considering Republican leanings in the district."
Going a step further, Omero said Garrett is among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
"(Garrett's) reelect numbers are lower than anyone else's who have been released this cycle," she said.
Indeed, sources say that one of the three major Washington, D.C. based ranking firms plans to move the district's rank from safe Republican to leans Republican, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has publicly taken notice of Shulman's campaign, even if they haven't offered any monetary support (the DCCC does not get involved in primary campaigns).
While Shulman's poll did conduct a head-to-head match-up between Garrett and Shulman, the campaign did not release those results.
To National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokeswoman Julie Shutley, those are the numbers that really count.
"I thought that one thing that stands up that's the most telling is that they didn't include the head to head numbers. I think that's something that was obviously asked and purposely left out," she said. "It seems to me that's the best indication of where a challenger stands against an incumbent."
Camille Abate, who faces Shulman in the primary, has garnered some labor support but is trailing in fundraising. She'll report about $64,000 raised last quarter and about $100,000 cash-on-hand.
A campaign-issued press release claimed that she "enjoys a significant advantage over her opponents in the June 3 Democratic primary and in November's general election.
The pollster read respondents bios of Abate and one of Shulman – both positive – and then asked voters who they would prefer. After hearing the bios, 39% of respondents chose Abate and 27% picked Shulman.
The survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, also claimed that Abate led Garrett 47%-32% (after respondents were read Abate's bio).
"Campaigns release these memos in order to advertise their candidate, not to give the voters information," said Fairleigh Dickinson University pollster and political science professor Peter Woolley.
Indeed, Woolley was skeptical of both polls' findings.
"When (Abate) says she moves into a lead over Garrett, she points out first that 'after voters hear a basic biographical profile of Abate, she moves into a lead," he sad. "This is just not how public polls are generally conducted, and it certainly doesn't happen in the voting booth either."
Garrett's name recognition, Wooley said, isn't uncommonly low for House members if respondents are asked just to name their Congressman.
"It's a different thing to say have you ever heard of Scott Garrett," he said. "You're going to get a very different level of response when you give the name and ask people have they ever heard of him – and that's really the more standard way of doing it."
As far as those who would consider voting for a new candidate, Woolley said that, even in economic boom times, people will often say they'll vote for change.
"You've got to ask yourself at some point: if Garrett is so vulnerable, why aren't there bigger-name Democrats getting into race?" he said.