They sell T-shirts in New Jersey that say “Only the Strong Survive.” It’s a fitting motto for the banner Member-vs.-Member race shaping up in the Garden State between Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steven Rothman.
Party strategists are dubbing the race “Sherman-Berman East,” a reference to the California contest between Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman that promises to be a nasty blockbuster.
But unlike the battle out West, where Berman has wide support among his House colleagues, New Jersey Members and Democratic political operatives are caught in an awkward position between two highly regarded Members. Not one Democrat in the delegation was willing to pick sides and offer an endorsement when contacted by Roll Call.
“I think they’re both qualified candidates and substantial contributors to New Jersey,” Rep. Donald Payne (D) said, echoing a sentiment that operatives, donors and others have stressed.
“It’s like someone’s cutting off a limb here,” said one party operative, who added those not closely associated with the candidates or their regions of the state are “avoiding [the race] like the plague.”
Many party loyalists were reluctant to go on the record with opinions, saying that both men are respected and loved. The Democratic insiders who would speak to Roll Call used words such as “horrible,” “devastating” and “this sucks” to describe how they felt about the race.
Democrats cannot find an arbiter who has the power to talk one of the men out of the race. “There’s nothing to offer,” the political operative said.
The race came to be during redistricting because the state lost a seat in reapportionment. The district consolidation occurred in the area of the two lawmakers’ current seats in northern New Jersey.
Rothman’s Fair Lawn residence was drawn into Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R) 5th district, but he opted to run against Pascrell in the new 9th district. The 9th has a substantial number of constituents from both incumbents’ current districts.
Both camps portray the new 9th district as its candidate’s obvious native territory and express dismay that the other candidate would even consider running in the June 5 primary.
The Pascrell campaign says that Pascrell lives in the district and Rothman does not. In the campaign’s logic, Rothman should run where his current home is, in the 5th district, and seize the opportunity to take out the conservative Garrett.
“Steve Rothman would be letting down New Jersey Democrats by running outside his hometown and passing up an opportunity to unseat right-wing radical Scott Garrett,” Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie, who has endorsed Pascrell, said in a written statement. “He would be playing right into the hands of Governor Christie.”
Rothman supporters, on the other hand, are quick to note that Rothman lives near the district line and will soon move to the 9th. They also say that Rothman grew up in the new 9th. In adulthood, Rothman was mayor of Englewood on the east side of the 9th and was a practicing attorney in the district.
“This is Steve Rothman’s home district and anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) said in a statement distributed by the Rothman campaign.
Rothman could run in the 5th and win, but he would win because Garrett is too conservative for the seat, a state Democratic insider said.
But that race would cost big money, and in 2014, Rothman would not have the coattails of President Barack Obama and Sen. Bob Menendez (D), both of whom are on the ballot this year. The insider fears Rothman’s record would be too liberal for the Republican-leaning district, and he would probably lose re-election to a new, more moderate GOP candidate.
“He had no choice,” the Democrat said.
In one of the rare instances of agreement on the race, both campaigns disagree with that Democrat, but with differing logic.
“I would characterize that as laziness,” a source close to Pascrell said. “It is silly for anyone to argue ... that the [5th] district is unwinnable. That’s garbage.”
The Rothman camp says that running in the redrawn 5th was never a consideration. “This is his home district,” Rothman campaign spokesman Philip Swibinski said of the 9th.
The new 9th district is home to the Meadowlands and is part of the New York City metropolitan area. Ad rates in the New York market are exorbitant — at least a half-million dollars per week to go on the air.
Observers estimate each campaign is likely to spend $2.5 million to $3 million — money that each lawmaker could be spending to help Democrats win House races elsewhere. As of the end of September, Pascrell had $1.4 million in cash on hand, while Rothman had $1.7 million in the bank.
The spending is a major cause for concern.
“All this money. ... We could be building the county parties and grass roots in a productive way,” one local Democrat said. “Instead, we’re killing each other.”
Both campaigns are touting local endorsements, which could help make the difference in a race between the two liberal lawmakers.
The refrain among Democratic strategists is that Rothman has “the numbers” edge in terms of voters but that Pascrell is a skilled retail politician who knows how to bring out the vote.
Also coming into play is the New Jersey Democratic machine. Three counties are in the new 9th: Bergen (home to Rothman), Hudson and Passaic (home to Pascrell).
In New Jersey party contests, each county’s Democratic Party offers an endorsement called “the line,” which determines ballot placement. But it also puts the full support of the county party’s machine behind a candidate.
Pascrell is expected to be “on the line” in Passaic, while Rothman will likely be “on the line” in Bergen and Hudson.
PolitickerNJ reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offered Rothman a sizable guarantee of campaign funds if he ran in the 5th district.
According to the Associated Press, Rothman said he was never offered a guarantee of $1 million or more from the DCCC if he agreed to run against Garrett instead of Pascrell.
A DCCC spokesman declined to comment to Roll Call on the story.
There is a sense among Democrats that the dilemma should have never happened in the first place. Some cite incompetence among Democrats who were involved in the map negotiations. Others cry foul against the independent tiebreaker on the state redistricting commission, John Farmer Jr. And then there are those who offer begrudging praise for Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who led the GOP negotiations.
“Somebody is going to lose,” said Bergen County Democratic Party Chairman Lou Stellato, who is backing Rothman. “But in the end, it’s going to be the people of New Jersey.”