PARSIPPANY, N.J. — “Taxes!”
“It’s always the most important issue,” said a middle-aged Republican who poked his head out of his front door on a muggy Saturday morning to greet state Assemblyman Jay Webber, the GOP nominee for New Jersey’s 11th District.
Webber had been knocking doors for nearly two hours in this leafy New York City suburb, and he was just happy someone had finally answered the door, let alone agreed with him about the tax burden and the Republicans’ ability to address it.
No one in this affluent district disagrees that taxes are a big deal here. Both Webber and Democratic nominee Mikie Sherrill will tell you that economic security is the biggest issue in the race.
Watch: The Race to Replace Frelinghuysen in New Jersey, Explained
But when it comes to the tax law Republicans pushed through late last year, and whether it improves or imperils voters’ financial well-being, opinions — and the numbers used to back them up — differ greatly.
That makes the 11th District ground zero for the current tax debate. Its wealthier residents might have stood to gain from the GOP tax overhaul except they’re also some of the biggest beneficiaries of a deduction for state and local taxes, or SALT, which the law limits.
Both Sherrill and Webber oppose the $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, but only one of them is willing to look beyond that part of the overhaul. That’s left the candidates to make statements about the law that sound like they were crafted in wildly different universes.
“No district benefited more from that tax plan than this one,” Webber said in an interview last weekend.
“This tax bill is worse for New Jersey than any state in the country,” Sherrill said several hours later, addressing volunteers at her Morristown office.
Open seat, new debate
The GOP tax overhaul didn’t start out as a partisan issue in this northern Jersey district.
Longtime Republican incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen voted against the legislation because he opposed the cap on SALT deductions.
That the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee bucked leadership on what was supposed to be a crowning achievement for congressional Republicans said a lot about just how damaging he thought the plan would be to his district — and to his own re-election prospects.
Several months later, the 12-term congressman announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, opening up a longtime Republican stronghold that narrowly voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
This is just the kind of suburban, well-educated district Democrats are trying to flip this year, and so far, they’re on the path to doing so. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Democratic, and Sherrill shattered fundraising records last month with a $1.9 million second quarter haul. Running since last May, the former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor has had a head start over Webber, who won a contested primary in June.
That means instead of running against a Republican critic of the tax overhaul, Sherrill is now facing an opponent who embraces his party’s biggest talking point.
When an elderly Republican voter in Parsippany told Webber her family is moving to South Carolina because they can no longer afford the property taxes, he listened sympathetically and said that was why he was running — to help bring some tax relief.
“We need more Republicans,” the woman said in response — a reminder that despite the Democratic enthusiasm sweeping the area, it’s still a Republican district. Frelinghuysen never won re-election with less than 58 percent of the vote.
But why does Webber support an overhaul opposed by Frelinghuysen — a lawmaker from a political dynasty that stretches back centuries in the area — and nearly every other Republican in the New Jersey delegation?
“I can’t speak for them,” Webber said.
Frelinghuysen has hosted fundraisers for the GOP nominee but hasn’t yet made a public endorsement.
While Webber opposes the cap on SALT deductions, he thinks New Jersey residents still come out ahead under the overhaul. With a larger standard deduction, a typical family of four in the district would see a $6,000 tax reduction, he said, citing statistics from the GOP-controlled Ways and Means Committee.
Webber said he would have fought to remove the SALT cap from the tax legislation, but even without that, he probably would have voted for the GOP plan.
“Mikie’s opposition to that bill based on the SALT cap is like winning the World Series four games to one and complaining about the one game you lost,” he said. “You’re looking for the dark lining in your silver cloud.”
Storm clouds rolled over Pompton Lake suddenly last Saturday, drenching a Democratic picnic in a sudden downpour.
“Everyone I know who’s a homeowner is losing money right now,” said John Pennington, a 73-year-old independent from Wayne, who was huddled under a patio table umbrella at a lakeside home.
Area residents had gathered to hear from Democratic candidates for every level of office from school board to Congress, and a common theme was how much they’re all paying in property taxes — and how much more they’re going to be paying under the new tax law.
Sherrill told them she was running to “get our SALT deduction back.” She rattled off statistics from Moody’s Analytics about how average home values in Essex County, where she lives, will decrease by 10 percent because of the tax law — the largest drop in the nation.
Her opposition to the tax overhaul is broader than just the SALT cap, but that’s what she thinks is most harmful to residents here. She’s been critical of a new House GOP proposal that could make the $10,000 cap permanent, calling on Webber this week to “reverse course.”
In her own town of Montclair, there’s a joke about parents pulling high school graduation signs for their children off the lawn and quickly replacing them with “for sale” signs. Now, Sherrill said, it’s parents whose kids are still in the school system who are being forced to relocate too.
She cast doubt on Webber’s statistics about the tax law, but said she isn’t worried about trying to combat them.
“Families feel it. Like, I don’t really have to give them the numbers. They can tell me their numbers — what their liability is going to be when they don’t get their deduction,” Sherrill said.
When her campaign team sends volunteers out to knock on doors, they’re told not to get lost in the tax weeds, but to simply tell their own stories.
Sherrill connects her opposition to the tax overhaul to a broader theme of economic security around the country.
“I know a lot of veteran candidates across the country — other candidates in rural districts and post-manufacturing districts are hearing the same thing I’m hearing here,” she said.
“This is something this country has to address: What the future is going to look like for middle-class families. Because right now, if people aren’t secure here in New Jersey, I’m not sure where they’re feeling secure economically,” she said.
A recent Monmouth poll gave Sherrill a narrow lead in the race against Webber, with voters siding with her on the tax issue, too.
She led Webber 44 percent to 40 percent under a historical midterm model for likely voters. The poll surveyed 406 district voters by telephone from June 22-25, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.
Opinions of the GOP tax overhaul also went in Sherrill’s favor, with 43 percent disapproving of it and 40 percent approving. Twice as many respondents thought their federal taxes would go up under the new law as those who said it would decline.
By a very slight margin, voters in the district said they’d still prefer to see Republicans control Congress. But there was a significant enthusiasm gap between the parties that could hurt Webber.
Still, he’s optimistic about having the resources necessary to get his message out, saying his is a “top 10 race.” But he ended the second quarter with just $172,000 in the bank to Sherrill’s $2.9 million. And so far, he’s not getting any outside help in the expensive New York City media market.
The National Republican Congressional Committee added Webber to its Young Guns program for its strongest candidates, but hasn’t reserved time here for the fall. Neither has the Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC tied to House leadership, which has reserved over $50 million in districts across the country.
Meanwhile, Democrats have zeroed in on the 11th as a top pickup opportunity. House Majority PAC, which supports House Democrats, has been running digital ads in the district against the tax law and has reserved time in the New York City media market that can be used for this race.