With just over a week to go before election day, Republicans in New Jersey are using a familiar tactic to turn out voters and damage the names of their Democratic opponents: link them to President Barack Obama.
In up and down ballot races across the state, Obama’s unpopularity has become a focal point for conservatives, who see targeting outrage over the two-term president and his disputed policies as their best bet in driving otherwise apathetic voters, but especially fed-up Republican voters, to the polls on Nov. 4th. On the local level, the maneuver amounts to as little as the tacit acknowledgment of a general frustration with the White House over the past eight years; on the state and federal level, including in senate and congressional races, it amounts to full-blown attack on the president and his policies.
“Roy Cho supports Obamacare and its skyrocketing costs. The President lied to us,” reads a recent mailer issued by the Republican incumbent in North Jersey’s fifth congressional district, where Scott Garrett is seeking his 11th term over Democratic hopeful Roy Cho. The mailer, stamped Garrett For Congress, features portraits of Cho and Obama next to the headline, “Democrat Roy Cho supports President Obama and his policies.”
The Obama effect, as its come to be called by some political observers and pundits, seems to be getting the most mileage on the national level, in contested House and Senate races where Republicans have made a habit of invoking the president’s name and his much-lambasted tenure to smear their Democratic opponents. In CD5, Garrett has employed it as Cho continues to make inroads, despite demographic and funding advantages that tilt toward the Republican. But the tactic is particularly pertinent in contested Senate races, where the GOP is vying fiercely to wrestle control from a Democratic majority.
In New Jersey, the state’s own Senate race has become a testament to the trend. Republican hopeful Jeff Bell, the 70-year-old policy wonk facing off against incumbent Senator Cory Booker, has made it a point to call out the Democrat on his perceived loyalty to the nation’s top executive just about every chance he gets. Indeed, it’s become perhaps Bell’s greatest advantage over the more popular Booker, as he lags behind his opponent both in standing and in financing (not to mention, Booker seems to be making easy work of Bell’s other issues, particularly his views on the gold standard).
“Rather than just spend his time in New Jersey indoors at a Democratic Party fundraiser, President Obama should join with Cory Booker and engage with voters by the beach while the weather’s still pleasant,” Bell said earlier this month after Obama announced he’d be visiting the state to host a close-door fundraiser with Booker. “I look forward to seeing how voters feel about the president’s job performance and by extension Cory Booker – who has a record in the U.S. Senate of voting 100% with the Obama agenda. While President Obama may also choose to answer questions from the press while he’s in New Jersey, I would not expect Sen. Booker to start doing that.”
Garrett has also taken to knocking Cho for his proximity to Obama — even if it is in party name only. Widely considered the most conservative congressman in New Jersey, and one who’s had little difficulty retaining his seat over the last decade, Garrett faces arguably his great challenge yet in Cho, who recent polling shows to be trailing the Republican by a surprisingly narrow margin of five points over the last leg of the race.
“Families are losing their doctors and insurance policies, but Roy Cho won’t repeal Obamacare,” Garrett’s mailer, sent to voters in the Warren, Sussex, Passaic, and Bergen County-constituted district earlier this month, reads. “He’s more concerned with political power grabs than helping New Jersey families. Now Roy Cho wants to represent you in Congress.”
But while movement conservative Garrett’s quickness to take to Obama-bashing likely isn’t very surprising, other, more moderate conservative congressional candidates in the state see the same opportunity to turn out voters in linking the president to their Democratic counterparts. In South Jersey’s third congressional district, arguably the state’s most competitive race, the GOP is using the same strategy to help get their candidate, Republican businessman Tom MacArthur, elected over his Democratic challenger, Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard.
According to a Republican source in the district, the GOP’s strategy in that race is to drive a high turnout by focusing heavy on anti-Obama optics. Led by county GOP Chairman George Gilmore, Republicans see an opportunity particularly in the Ocean County half of the district, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 103,517 (28.4%) to 74,795 (20.5%), but where 186,089 (51.0%) independents have a strong history of leaning right. And while Burlington County, though Democratic on paper, also boasts a long history of Republican leadership, Obama’s polling numbers are dismal in Ocean, the most conservative county in the state.
Sources say this has led the GOP leadership to focus their efforts in the last weeks of the race on drawing parallels between Belgard, whose strengths lie in healthcare and who has focused heavily on talk about Obamacare and social security and Medicare in the contest, to Obama — but also between Obama and Booker, whose campaign wants to beat Bell by more than 11 points, the 2013 margin of victory by Booker over movement conservative Steve Lonegan.
Gilmore and his team want to push big numbers out of the Ocean County half of CD3 not only to propel MacArthur’s margin of victory, but to chest thump with more abandon over other GOP rivals.
But while Republicans in New Jersey’s federal elections are explicitly using Obama’s unpopularity to attract voters, conservatives in down-ballot races look to be doing it implicitly — or, at the very least, find themselves feeding off the effects. In municipal elections across the state, Republican leaders are hoping that Obama fatigue among the general populace will help to give their candidate’s an edge, especially in driving out voters who might not be enticed otherwise to head to the polls on the 4th.
“The displeasure about Obama, the displeasure with his policies, it only helps us,” said Bob Yudin, the Bergen County Republican chairman whose candidate in the county’s executive race, Republican incumbent Kathe Donovan, is working to keep Democratic opponent and first-term Bergen County Freeholder Jim Tedesco from the door. “How much it helps us is hard to say because it’s just difficult to pin that down. But it is a factor, and it can only help us, it can’t hurt us.”
Yudin said he’s confident this year’s Obama effect will help Republicans “at whatever level of a campaign you’re talking about,” whether it be races at the top of the ticket or at the bottom. He pointed to the president’s performance on the job, public perception, and approval ratings — which currently sit at near-record lows — as evidence that Republicans can only benefit from the White House during this year’s election cycle.
Still, it’s unclear how successful Republicans’ strategy will be. In the two starkest examples of conservatives employing the tactic, Republicans Garrett and Bell are doing poorer than expected, with Garrett closest to facing a Democratic upset than he’s ever been and Bell with hopes for any success at all quickly dwindling.
According to Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University, voter turn out this election will probably have a lot more to with the candidates and their particular records than the president’s popularity.
“First of all, this is a tried and true tactic of campaigns,” Dworkin said. “People, when Richard Nixon was unpopular, they linked Republicans to him. When George Bush was unpopular, down-ballot Republicans were linked to him. When Bill Clinton was unpopular, when Jim McGreevey was unpopular, they were all linked to them. So this happens.”
Dworkin said the strategy has seen “a very mixed record of success — and I’m not convinced that the current electorate is focused on sending a message to Obama, and therefore ready to punish Democrats in this upcoming November election.”
“I think Republicans are more motivated to come out and vote than Democrats and that might make the difference,” Dworkin added. “But despite the president’s unpopularity, I don’t sense a ground swell of a ‘send the president a message by voting Republican’ wave out there. That goes for up and down ballot races.”