Republican House candidates in the 5th district are locked into a tense feud over the chance to take on Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) in November.
Though the contest between former Cresskill Councilman John McCann and former investment banker Frank Pallotta’s has fallen short of the savagery seen in the 2018 intra-party fight between McCann and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, both sides have their knives out.
“I think the tenor is what it should me. In my opinion, John’s gotten a little dirty. He’s gotten a little lie-y. It’s also expected given his past, the attacks from 2018,” Pallotta said.
Pallotta’s campaign has revived many of the attacks fielded against McCann during his last bid at Gottheimer’s seat.
The campaign tested many of those attacks in May poll, and in a recent television ad dubbing the former councilman a “swamp creature,” Pallotta revived a Lonegan attack claiming McCann dodged $130,000 in taxes.
This time around, the attack has McCann considering legal action.
“I think that although this campaign publicly doesn’t seem as bitter, the attacks have crossed the legal threshold into defamation, and that can’t be tolerated,” he said, charging that the ad and other shots taken by Pallotta amount to libel.
“You can’t accuse me of committing a crime,” McCann said.
With the election now just days away, such a suit would likely have minimal impact on the race.
It’s not exactly clear what McCann is doing to move the needle instead—he declined to give details about television ads and mailers launched by his campaign, saying only that his campaign had adopted an “unconventional” strategy.
Still, the re-run campaign has landed some literature in voters’ mailboxes, the candidate said.
Pallotta’s campaign was a little more forthcoming. On top of the televised ad blitz, the former investment banker’s campaign has launched roughly a dozen online videos featuring Pallotta in talks with district residents in the style of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
“We’ve done also one-off video pieces where we speak specifically about something that might come up, like China or things like that,” Pallotta said. “And we run regular mailer and emailer campaigns, and then we’ve got digital and social media. We’ve got a team that does that for us.”
Though McCann has so far outspent Pallotta on online ads, putting in $37,426 on Facebook and Instagram ads between May 2018 and July 3 to Pallotta’s $15,236, he hasn’t launched a single ad on the social media platform since August.
By contrast, Pallotta had seven active Facebook spots running Sunday, spending $1,263 on them over the last week.
Neither candidate is knocking on doors.
“It’s out of respect for the different views that people have with regard to corona,” McCann said, echoing his opponent’s sentiments on the matter.
The two-time congressional candidate has completely eschewed events, both in-person and digital, in his repeat bid for the fifth district’s seat.
In-person events have been waylaid by COVID-19, while “digital events are failures,” McCann said.
Pallotta has looked at both types events with a more willing eye. While his campaign has largely eschewed in-person campaigning — aside from one recent meet-and-greet that drew roughly 20 attendees — they’ve placed a greater premium on remote connections even while lamenting the loss of door-to-door campaigning.
“I just didn’t think it was the right time to do it,” Pallotta said. “One door may say ‘come on in and have coffee.’ The other may basically open the door in a hazmat suit and tell you to go away. We evolved very early on to make the worst-case assumption that will be a non-face-to-face campaign.”
On top of the drastic shifts it’s caused in campaigning around the state, COVID-19 also complicated the fight for the party line in Bergen County.
Bergen County Republican Chairman Jack Zisa awarded McCann, who was backed by the Bergen County Republican Organization’s policy committee, the line after cancelling the committee’s convention over coronavirus concerns.
No provision in the BCRO’s bylaw allowed the committee to award a line without holding a convention, and the sage still has Pallotta in a bit of a knot.
“The line was kind of a joke,” he said.
Some Bergen County Republicans have agreed. Prominent — and popular — Republican lawmakers like State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) have split with the party to endorse Pallotta.
Those endorsements didn’t concern McCann overmuch, but the nature of this year’s mostly-vote-by-mail primary has the candidate a little worried.
“I’m a candidate for federal office and I don’t feel confident in our election, and it’s not a partisan attack,” he said, adding that his own 2018 mail-in ballot wasn’t counted because of a signature mismatch.
Two other candidates, teacher James Baldini and perennial candidate Hector Castillo, are also in the race with McCann and Pallotta.
Gottheimer faces a primary challenge from Glen Rock Councilwoman Arati Kreibich.