Portrait of a moderate district: NJ-11 leans R, but the race leans D

Michael Walsh
Republican New Jersey Assemblyman Jay Webber, Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill (Photos: Mary Altaffer/AP)
Republican New Jersey Assemblyman Jay Webber, Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill (Photos: Mary Altaffer/AP)

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway campaigned for Republican congressional candidate Jay Webber on Monday evening, but her support could be a double-edged sword in New Jersey’s 11th District.

Conway’s speech stayed away from President Trump’s policies that wouldn’t resonate with the socially liberal but well-off northern New Jersey suburbs and focused on recent economic growth and low unemployment rates, which she attributed to deregulation, tax cuts and new trade policies.

“What has it done? It has helped to spur an economic boom. Growth like we haven’t seen in generations, in decades, in decades, if ever. Low employment rates: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, but also the lowest unemployment rate among women in about seven decades,” she told the crowd in Wayne, N.J., 15 miles northwest of Newark.

That she didn’t dwell on more divisive aspects of the Trump administration illustrates that catering to the fringe of either party does not play well in NJ-11 — but depicting one’s opponent as an extremist just might.

Following the national GOP strategy, the Webber campaign portrays Democrat Mikie Sherrill as a far-left radical who’s out of step with the traditionally Republican district. Webber routinely posts pictures on social media of torn-apart “Webber for Congress” signs and claims Sherrill has “extreme liberal views” and a “socialist-inspired agenda” and has surrounded herself with “extreme radicals.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway after speaking in support of Webber in Wayne, N.J. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway after speaking in support of Webber in Wayne, N.J. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

Not only does this description ring false for Sherrill — a former Navy helicopter pilot who has made preserving tax deductions in the affluent district her main issue — but for Webber to appear with Conway and House Speaker Paul Ryan runs against the general anti-Trump sentiment of the Garden State. It’s precisely because Sherrill represents the economic concerns of the 11th District, centered on Morris County, that she’s close to turning a longtime red seat blue.

Webber’s support for the Republican tax plan places him at odds with New Jersey voters. Every northern New Jersey congressman, including the retiring 11th District incumbent, Rodney Frelinghuysen, voted against the GOP tax plan, which places a cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions on federal income taxes. Sherrill has made ending the cap, which hits residents of high-tax jurisdictions especially hard, a centerpiece of her campaign. Webber supports the GOP tax plan, but also wants the SALT deduction reinstated in its unlimited form. Since the cap was meant to pay (in small part) for the big cuts in tax rates in the rest of the bill, ending it would increase the federal budget deficit even more. That seems unlikely to pass a Republican Congress.

“This is about what’s good for New Jersey, and in that respect there’s wide agreement across the political spectrum,” Sherrill told Yahoo News. “People here, whether you’re a progressive or conservative, want to deduct their state and local taxes. They know that’s critical for our middle-class families.”

Sherrill said NJ-11 isn’t partisan by nature and that there’s general consensus across a number of issues: job creation, quality and affordable health care, tax relief for middle-class families and fiscal responsibility.

“These are all the things people are talking about. And these aren’t Republican things or Democrat things. These are New Jersey things. We’re all trying to figure out how we make sure everybody here has a secure economic future,” Sherrill said.

The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, endorsed Sherrill on Monday morning and argued that Webber is too radical for a community that’s long been represented by the comparatively moderate Frelinghuysen. The editorial board asserted that Sherrill is “a good fit,” whereas Webber has embraced President Trump and “a Republican party that’s careened to the far right” and has been “a strict ideologue in the state legislature.”

On Oct. 19, Webber announced that he would not be sitting for an interview with the paper’s editorial board because he was offended by an editorial from the summer that said, “It’s impossible to say what voice Webber is hearing inside his head.” The Webber campaign said he “simply will not subject himself” to a process that it described, in an echo of Trumpian rhetoric, as “so biased and lack[ing] transparency.”

This is Sherrill’s first time running for elective office, so Webber’s attacks on her as a “hard-left culture warrior” seem rooted more in conservative grievances with “the unhinged left” than anything specific to her record.

Webber accused Sherrill of having “radical immigration proposals” after she spoke out against family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. He also condemned her for praising Nancy Pelosi at an event last month, despite Sherrill’s saying she won’t vote for Pelosi as party leader.

“Mikie says she cares about putting new leadership in Washington, yet she recently revealed she has no issue with the direction Nancy Pelosi has taken,” Webber said in a statement. “Instead, behind closed doors she’s praised Pelosi and her policies, demonstrating Mikie is more concerned with the politics of Pelosi’s name than she is with Pelosi’s dangerous policies that will damage our country.”

Webber, who represents Morris County in New Jersey’s General Assembly, is considerably to the right of Frelinghuysen on a number of issues, including abortion and guns.

Webber during a campaign event in Hanover, N.J. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
Webber during a campaign event in Hanover, N.J. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, endorsed Frelinghuysen in 2016 but condemned “Webber’s repugnant anti-LGBT track record.” He was president of a group in Harvard Law School that promoted the idea that people can stop being gay through prayer. As an assemblyman, he has voted against same-sex marriage and repeatedly introduced or sponsored amendments to define marriage as between a man and a woman — even after same-sex marriage became legal in New Jersey.

At a debate on Oct. 10 sponsored by New Jersey public television station NJTV, Sherrill confronted Webber over his history of opposing gay rights and questioned his vote against banning conversion therapy for gay teenagers in 2013.

“You refused to vote against conversion for our LGBT youth despite knowing that it leads to suicides, depressions and drug use,” Sherrill said. “As a mom, that was very concerning to me. And I just wondered if you could explain your position on conversion therapy to us tonight.”

Webber responded that Sherrill gets “facts wrong all the time.” He said the Harvard group he led was defending religious liberty. “Mikie keeps looking backward six years to a bill that even the Star-Ledger — no conservative rag — said should not be voted on, should not be approved because the relationship and communication between licensed therapists and patients should be sacrosanct and no matter what you think of the form of the therapy the government shouldn’t be interfering.”

Webber abstained from voting on a bill that would ban gun sales to suspected terrorists. He voted against universal background checks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and against allowing cities and towns to establish weapon-free zones around their schools.

He voted against paid leave for new mothers. He was also the sole legislator to vote against requiring insurance companies to cover treatment for people addicted to opioids and restrictions on opioid prescriptions.

The Cook Political Report’s analysis of House races currently says NJ-11 “leans Democratic.”


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