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New Jersey Democrat faces primary challenge from a former volunteer

Two years ago, Arati Kreibich volunteered to help reelect New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer. In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, she is running to replace him.

The split came slowly, she said, and then all at once. When Gottheimer and a band of moderate and conservative Democrats pushed to quickly pass a controversial border aid bill in 2019, effectively ending efforts in the House to add new protections to Senate legislation, Kreibich felt betrayed and decided to challenge him in 2020.

Gottheimer first won the seat from a seven-term Republican in 2016, but Kreibich is arguing now that he is out of step with the shifting politics of their northern New Jersey district, which, she argues, has become more liberal during the Trump era. Gottheimer is, by an assortment of metrics from a variety of sources, one of the more conservative Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill. He is also a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which yields more power — as illustrated in contentious terms during the border battle — than House progressives within the Democratic caucus, despite generating far fewer headlines.

GovTrack, the independent congressional data crunchers, ranked Gottheimer as the House Democrats’ second most conservative member and, in 2018, he voted with Trump more than 76% of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. That figure plummeted to 5% in 2019, which Gottheimer’s campaign points to as evidence that the measure itself is unreliable.

Kreibich, 45, and her allies have hammered Gottheimer over his voting record, questioning his partisan credentials and labeling him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” Her campaign launched a trolling website, “joshgottheimer.republican,” that aggregated stories about his most controversial votes and, before linking to her own homepage, asked: “Want to elect a real Democrat to Congress in NJ-5?”

Gottheimer, also 45, called the site a “gimmick” and aggressively defended his bona fides, while touting his support from in-state elected officials and a slew of liberal groups and national Democratic leaders.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat,” he said. “I’ve got the backing of everyone from the Speaker of the House and Hakeem Jeffries to Cory (Booker), to Planned Parenthood, to Moms Demand Action, to labor, to the Congressional Black Caucus. So I’m a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat and very proud of that. There’s some kind of fringes of the party and they might not agree with everything that we agree with, but the key is to be a big tent party.”

Differing views of the district

Kreibich moved to the United State from India when she was 11. She became an American citizen after turning 18. A neuroscientist with no political experience, she was shocked into action by Trump’s victory in 2016, attending the Women’s March in Washington before running — for the first time — for a seat on the Glen Rock, New Jersey, borough council in 2017. She won and became its first South Asian member when she took office the next year.

Despite her growing unease with Gottheimer, Kreibich supported his bid for a second term in 2018, which turned into a romp during a midterm cycle that saw Democrats retake the House majority.

“Did I know that Josh was not as progressive as I wanted him to be? Yes. Did I also know that he was actually more conservative than moderate? Yes. Did I feel like I had a choice? No, none of us did,” Kreibich told CNN. “But we said, we’re going to make sure that we keep this district blue.”

And so they did. After a narrow victory in 2016, Gottheimer dusted his Republican opponent two years later, winning re-election by nearly 14 percentage points. But Gottheimer and Kreibich take starkly different views of what that means ahead of the coming general election — and about the makeup of their district.

Gottheimer told CNN that Democrats should not be misled by that eye-popping margin. Trump won the district in 2016 and conservative Republican Rep. Scott Garrett, whom Gottheimer defeated on that otherwise catastrophic night for the party, served there for more than a decade. The district, according to Gottheimer, has not fundamentally changed since then — the blue wave of 2018 was muted, he said, by a less successful run of results in 2019 off-year races.

“I think if it’s me or anyone else, we can lose this district. It’s a very hard district,” he said. “The other side is going to come at us hard as they always do. They spend a lot of money and they attack hard. My two Republican opponents are leaning in hard with Trump. He’s very popular in the district, remains popular in the district. So it’s going to be a tough race again.”

Kreibich didn’t suggest that Democrats were a lock to retain the seat, but she argued that the district is evolving — and Gottheimer, a former Microsoft executive and speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, hasn’t been responsive to an increasingly diverse and progressive electorate.

“It’s very clear why Josh won in 2018, it is because of women like me,” Kreibich said. “There was a seismic shift in NJ-5. And if you were not here, it’s hard to explain that, although I suppose it’s been a microcosm of what had been happening across America, in terms of women waking up. For the first time in my entire life, I was part of a trend — and didn’t realize it.”

As the suburbs appeared to be changing, so too was the Democratic Party. Progressive newcomers, many inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign, launched a series of longshot challenges — most of them failing — to moderate and traditionally liberal incumbent Democrats in 2018. But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke through, ousting Joe Crowley, then the fourth-ranking House Democrat, in New York, before Ayanna Pressley defeated Mike Capuano in Massachusetts. Sanders and Pressley endorsed Kreibich this year. Marie Newman, who nearly unseated conservative Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois two years ago, beat him this time around in March. And two weeks ago, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman struck another blow, likely ending Rep. Eliot Engel’s three-decade run in the Bronx and Westchester.

The strong performance of progressives in New York, including Bowman, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, gave a late boost to Kreibich, who is trying to pull off a stunner of her own.

“I’ve seen a lot more folks who are interested, voters who are interested, who really do feel that sense of hope because of what’s happened in New York and want to bring that out to New Jersey,” she said. “Practically, it’s meant more volunteers, been better amplification across social media, and a lot more people coming to check out our town halls, coming to check out our positions and really giving us a chance.”

Drawing the battle lines

Gottheimer, despite a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage — he had more $8 million in cash on hand in the final week before the primary, a staggering sum that helps explain why some call him the “Human Fundraising Machine” — appears to be taking Kreibich seriously, too. He took a sharp line in defending his record during a recent debate on local radio and sought to cast his challenger as a radical who risked handing the district back to Republicans in November.

“I’m proud to be running with Joe Biden and Cory Booker,” he said, “And I’ll be honest, if Bernie Sanders, socialized medicine and extremism are more of your view, then my opponent is probably your candidate.”

Kreibich, who supports “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, has more in common with Newman and California Rep. Katie Porter, a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, than “the squad.” Her most prominent outside backers come from Indivisible, which launched after Trump’s election in 2016, and also backed Newman earlier this year. Its political arm has spent on digital ads and direct mail backing Kreibich, whose messaging has been more partisan — spotlighting Gottheimer’s propensity for voting with Republicans — than ideological.

Lucy Solomon, the political director for Indivisible’s independent expenditure group, acknowledged that Kreibich faces an uphill battle, but suggested that Gottheimer’s attempt to cast her as an extremist would fall flat.

“Gottheimer is still running and legislating like he is in a purple-leaning red district, and we think that the district has changed and that’s not the case anymore,” Solomon said. “A lot of the issues that he’s using as progressive boogeymen are things that generally, and then especially in the moment we’re in right now, actually do resonate with voters.”

New Jersey was one of the states originally hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It delayed its primary and, unlike in New York where absentee ballots had to be requested, sent them to every Democratic voter. Unaffiliated voters will also, if they agree to identify as Democrats, be able to cast a ballot in the primary, potentially creating a bigger and less predictable electorate.

Solomon said the “weirdness” that the coronavirus injected into the campaign has given her group, and its efforts on Kreibich’s behalf, a new avenue for pursuing persuadable voters.

“A lot of the work that we’ve been doing on the (independent expenditure) side in this race has been speaking to voters who may not have ever felt a reason to vote in a Democratic primary before,” Solomon said. “But now that there’s a candidate who isn’t just aware of, but is on the right side of these issues, we’re hoping that that can encourage some of these voters to turn out.”

CNN

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