The fight for the Republican nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 5th district has turned nasty and personal, and it shows no signs of turning civil.
Former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan and former Cresskill councilman John McCann’s race for the Republican nomination has seen mudslinging since its inception, and sources say the candidates don’t intend to tone down the rhetoric or halt the personal attacks anytime soon. That could hurt their chances against Rep. Josh Gottheimer in November’s general election.
Lonegan’s team has drawn up a lawsuit against McCann, accused him of not paying his taxes, threatening local Republican officials and called him a closet Democrat.
Meanwhile, McCann’s team pulled Lonegan’s ballot slogan out from under him, called attention to anti-gay and anti-Christian statements Lonegan allegedly made in 2006 and – in an oddly familiar move – called him an agent for Democrats.
“It’s going to get uglier,” a Bergen County operative told the New Jersey Globe. “I just think there’s more to come out.”
If anything, the similarities between the two candidates’ approaches is striking. For one, both claim the other threw the first stone.
On the Lonegan side, campaign manager Mike Proto claims his candidate’s camp is only reacting to attacks from McCann’s campaign.
“We’re going to punch back. We’re not going to sit here and take some of these attacks that they’re launching at us,” Proto said. “The reality is this: John McCann is desperate. They’re losing. He has no money. He’s in debt. He has no message. All he can do is attack Steve Lonegan. That’s all he has. He has nothing else.”
McCann himself claims that Lonegan started the feud by lying to voters, and by lying about him.
“The tone was set by Mr. Lonegan when he started lying to the voters about having the endorsement of the national Republican party,” McCann said. “These tactics that Steve has engaged in, he’s engaged in in every single primary that he’s had. He calls his republican opponents democrats. He lies about them.”
The latest breaking point in the feud has come from statements Lonegan allegedly made in 2006. Opponents say he called George Silos, then a member of the Bogota City Council, a “fundamentalist faggot piece of shit.”
McCann and his surrogates claim the statement ought to disqualify Lonegan from the race. Former Rep. Scott Garrett’s defeat in 2016 is largely attributed to anti-gay comments the seven-term congressman in the run-up to the election.
Lonegan’s team is framing the attack as a false flag, claiming Silos is a Democrat and saying that the statement only drags the primary fight further into the mud.
“If you look at that video Mr. Silos put out accusing Steve Lonegan of being the Roy Moore of New Jersey, what’s he trying to say? That Steve Lonegans’ a pedophile? That’s despicable. That’s pretty despicable and low. That’s gutter politics,” Proto said, adding later about Silos: “A lot of people see him as a bit of a crackpot.”
Both camps also claim that their candidate is the only one that can take on Gottheimer in the general, but Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall, said that, if they keep at it, it’s unlikely either of them will have much of a chance against the first-term congressman.
Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat that has managed to make a name for himself as a freshman, makes for a tough opponent in any case, Hale said. It doesn’t help that he’s the best funded House candidate in the state.
By constantly taking shots at teach other, McCann and Lonegan risk fracturing the fifth district’s Republican base and depressing Republican voter turnout, Hale said.
“There’s such animosity between the two camps, that it might be tough for whoever wins to get the other person’s supporters on board and coalesce around whoever the winner is,” Hale said. “Sometimes those wounds just don’t heal. Sometimes people that would normally be happy to support any Republican might just sort of say ‘no, that guy was a little bit too mean. I’m going to sit this one out.’”
But neither of the candidates was particularly worried at the prospect of an uphill race of a fractured party base.
“Well, I don’t know what the McCann voters are. Are we talking about liberal progressives in the Republican party?” Proto said. “We need to turn out our base, and the base of the Republican party remains conservative.”