After only two years in office, Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer is one of the top fundraisers in the 435-member House, and he might need all the cash he can get.
Since Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in 2016, Gottheimer has pulled more than $3.7 million this election cycle — $732,000 in the first three months of the year, making him the state’s most well-funded House candidate, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
To put it in perspective, the freshman’s fundraising more than doubles the combined fundraising of his opponents. Republican Steve Lonegan has raised $1,345,618 this election, while attorney John McCann has raised $170,691. Gottheimer has raised a staggering $3,707,288.
Gottheimer’s expensive race against Garrett last year saw him raise almost $4.8 million, plus more than $2 million of outside spending in favor of Gottheimer and almost $4.3 million of outside spending opposing Garrett.
Without considering the outside spending, Gottheimer still managed to out-fund a seven-term incumbent that started the race with roughly $2 million banked.
Political forecasters favor Gottheimer in this year’s race, largely due to the perceived weakness of his opponents and the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, who won the district in 2016.
“I think you have to look at the race in its context. If Hillary Clinton had won, and this was a midterm in a Clinton Presidency, then Gottheimer’s chances of reelection would be significantly diminished,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. “If we had a different president, I think Gottheimer would probably be toast.”
Given the political climate, Gottheimer may not need to spend all the cash he’ll raise by the end of the cycle, but the situation isn’t quite so simple. Michael Soliman, a Democratic strategist, pointed to the district history as a Republican stronghold, one that the party had kept locked for 36 years.
“I think that Josh has a tough race. People forget that it’s a Republican district and that Trump won that district,” Soliman said. “He’ll need every nickel given to him because he’s the top target in the state in a district with the most expensive media market in the country.”
What’s more, Lonegan carried the district when he ran for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s seat in 2013, and though a Monmouth University poll released Monday showed a narrowing between Republican and Democratic preferences in Republican-held districts, the trend might not be enough to allow Gottheimer to cruise to an easy victory.
“That Gottheimer’s raising money there indicates to me that they recognize that they got to work to hold on to it,” said Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt. “It has been a Republican district for as long as anybody can remember, and despite what some pundits might see in the current climate, Gottheimer’s close ties to the governor, and the motivation of republicans in a Trump-Guadagno district actually bode well for a Republican comeback in November.”
There are other complicating factors as well. Lonegan spent several years as executive director of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) – New Jersey and has ties to the Koch Brothers. Democratic and Republican sources said the race will see an influx of outside money as November approaches, reportedly including a seven-figure sum from David and Charles Koch.
But Erica Jedynak, the AFP state director, says that speculation that organization will help Lonegan is “100% false.”
“We evaluate candidates based on the opportunities to make an impact,” Jedynak said.
So, what exactly will the politically-connected former Microsoft executive do with his extensive bankroll?
One option for Gottheimer is to support his fellow Democrats in the state’s more competitive races, like ones in the 3rd, where former Obama national security staffer Andy Kim faces Rep. Tom MacArthur, in the 7th, where Rep. Leonard Lance will fight to keep his seat against one of three Democratic challengers, including former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, or in the 11th, where another fundraising phenom, Mikie Sherrill, is seeking an open seat the Republicans have held since 1984.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be sending money out to the other candidates,” said Democratic State Chairman John Currie.” I think it could be a possibility, but I don’t want to speak for him.”
But given the nature of the race, Gottheimer, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, may choose to use his funds to secure his own victory and help ensure his success in the district does not come to a stop. That could mean spending all the money he raises to attempt to win by a larger margin and dissuade potential challengers in 2020 from entering the race.
Alternatively, Gottheimer could try to use as little money as possible to keep his campaign war chest overflowing and scare off potential challengers that way.
The congressman’s recent FEC filings offer little insight there. Aside from payroll costs and donation refunds, there are small payments for various event-related expenses, but the largest chunks of his April and year-end filings, close to $35,000 in both cases, went to two fundraising firms, Silver Strategies and Communications Group and The Frost Group. Gottheimer has done a good job not burning through cash early on.
If he intends to spend the bulk of his funds this cycle, he has yet to start. In the meantime, he’s letting the two Republican candidates duke it out against each other in a primary that has already turned personal, a fact that Dworkin said will work to Gottheimer’s benefit down the line.
Comment provided Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, suggests that Gottheimer might be erring on the side of caution
“It’s way too early to be making those decisions,” Lukaske said, referring to how the congressman might use his war chest.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment from AFP – New Jersey state director Erica Jedynak.