Yikes, it’s looking ugly for Democrats this election. I’m talking hide the children and grab a pitchfork ugly. But what appears to be a coming rainstorm of red on election night could also see a surprising blip of blue in a congressional race in North Jersey where a few months ago the Democratic candidate was down by 13 points.
Proving once again the adage “all politics is local,” 33-year-old first time candidate Roy Cho has now closed the gap in his contest with five-term Tea Party Republican Rep. Scott Garrett to five points, according to a poll released Wednesday. No one, including probably even Cho, could’ve seen this coming.
After all, in 2012, when Obama won the Garden State by a whopping 18 points, Garrett still coasted to victory with 55 percent of the vote. Plus, Garrett, one of the senior members of the House Budget committee, started this election cycle with a war chest of more than $2 million and was facing an unknown and untested opponent.
So what happened? Hurricane Sandy. Yes, that devastating storm that struck New Jersey in the fall of 2012 has become the galvanizing issue of the 2014 campaign. And for good reason.
In late 2012, all 12 members of the New Jersey congressional delegation signed a letter urging the House leadership to provide additional aid to victims of Sandy. All, that is, except one: Scott Garrett. Garrett also dragged his feet about whether he would support the Sandy aid bill, which he ultimately did.
Then last month in a display of hubris that would even make Dick Cheney blush, Garrett put out a mailer claiming he “worked to bring immediate relief for Sandy victims.” This claim was so preposterous that the state’s biggest paper, the Newark Star Ledger, penned an editorial on October 2 titled “Scott Garrett a champion of fiction, not disaster relief,” calling out his “revisionist” history.
It’s not that there aren’t other issues Cho and past Democratic opponents have raised in their respective campaigns against Garrett. The most notable being that Garrett is a Tea Party type, far right politician in a Blue State where generally Republicans are more moderate.
In fact, Garrett is so conservative that he has consistently received a 100 percent score from the American Conservative Union (ACU), tying him with such luminaries as Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz. He has even opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and voted against a law that would protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Voters in New Jersey’s Republican-leaning 5th congressional district were willing to still support Garrett over a Democrat even if he was more conservative than they were on various federal issues. But local issues tend to trump partisanship, which helps explain the new poll numbers.
The possible Democratic upset here is not just about Garrett making a mistake. It’s also about Cho. No one believed in him at first. Being from North Jersey myself, I can recall speaking to local Democratic party leaders in 2013 when Cho first expressed an interest in running. They didn’t think he had a shot. Consequently, they actively sought other candidates, including a former member of Congress who served in the 1970s.
But Cho did something that’s a lesson for others seeking to impress political party leaders: He raised money. And not just a little. By early 2014, he had amassed a few hundred thousand dollars in campaign donations.
In large part Cho raised these funds by tapping into his own Asian American community. Cho is the first Asian American to ever secure a nomination for Congress in New Jersey. As Cho explained, his community, “has been underrepresented at the federal level for so long” they took pride in Cho’s candidacy. Even Star Trek’s George Takei got into the act and helped Cho raise funds.
At this point Cho has raised close to $1 million, far more than past Democrats challenging Garrett. But beating an incumbent like Garrett is a heavy lift, especially since he chairs a Financial Services subcommittee and has raised a considerable amount from those interests. Garrett’s latest FEC report filed earlier this week notes that he has more than $3 million on hand.
And despite the tightening race, a spokesperson for the Garrett campaign, Maggie Seidel, told me that the new poll numbers don’t alarm them because Cho is at 43 percent, which is the same percent of votes the Democratic candidate garnered in 2012.
True, but in 2012 Garrett received 55 percent of the vote. Garrett is currently at only 48 percent and this is a year favoring Republicans nationwide. As most political experts will tell you, any incumbent below 50 percent is vulnerable.
Cho has made the Sandy issue the focus of his campaign for the closing weeks. On Wednesday, Cho released a new campaign ad centered on Garrett’s dubious claims about his efforts to seek Sandy aid. And this week New Jersey’s senior Senator Robert Menendez joined Cho in calling out Garrett for failing to stand with the rest of the New Jersey congressional delegation in demanding Sandy relief funds.
Sitting senators don’t go out on limbs for likely losers, so we can intuit here that Menendez and the state party think Cho has a real shot. If Cho does pull out a victory in a year Democrats are staring at potentially staggering losses nationwide, it will again affirm the notion that all politics is indeed still local.