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NJ Republican has plan to win in November: Embrace Trump

NJ Republican has plan to win in November: Embrace Trump
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At a time when New Jersey GOP candidates are keeping their distance from the White House, Republican Jay Webber has a bold plan: go all-in with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE.

New Jersey is poised to play a central role in the November midterm battle, as Democrats target the 23 Republican seats they need to flip to take over the House. 

One of the priorities will be New Jersey’s 11th District, where Webber, a state lawmaker, is battling it out with Democrat Mikie Sherrill in the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE, the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman who decided at the beginning of the year not to seek reelection.

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While Frelinghuysen has represented the district for two decades, Trump won it by only 1 point in 2016, and Trump remains broadly unpopular in the state, in part after a major tax law he signed last year capped state and local tax (SALT) deductions. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Democratic.”

Webber has been willing to embrace the White House and its agenda, earning the president’s endorsement last week and posing a test case of whether a full-fledged Trump supporter can win in this blue state.

“I’m running an optimistic and confident campaign based on lowering taxes, creating jobs and making sure we have strong but fair immigration laws,” Webber said after Trump’s endorsement.

“I’m pleased to have the support of President Trump in pursuit of those objectives and look forward to working with him in Washington as we fight to make people in North Jersey and across America even more prosperous and free,” he said.

In trying to win, Webber will face the same tough hurdles Republicans are facing across the country, especially in the blue states that went overwhelmingly with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series White House defends Biden's 'Neanderthal thinking' remark on masks MORE in 2016.

Trump’s unpopularity remains the top concern for Republicans. While there’s been limited polling out of the 11th District, a Monmouth University poll from late June found Trump with a negative approval rating, but one that’s higher than the national average, with 47 percent who approve and 49 percent who disapprove.

Webber is also facing a lag in fundraising, having only $171,000 on hand as of the end of June, compared with Sherrill’s $2.9 million.

Meanwhile, House Majority PAC, the Democrat’s House super PAC, has already run digital ads in the district against the tax cuts and has a total of $690,300 in TV ads booked starting Oct. 9 and running through Election Day, according to multiple sources watching the ad market.

But Webber may have a silver lining because the 11th District, an affluent and well-educated district in northern Jersey not far from New York City, has been a GOP stronghold since the 1980s when its lines were redrawn under a Republican-controlled state legislature.

The Monmouth poll showed the House race in a dead heat, with Sherrill up by 2 points, while polled voters in the district were split on which party they wanted to see control Congress, with Republicans having a slight edge over Democrats, 40 to 38 percent.

Support from the White House can also give Webber a much-needed boost in fundraising. Vice President Pence has already come to New Jersey to headline a fundraiser for the Republican. And Webber told The Hill that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyWatch live: McCarthy holds press briefing Biden vows to work with Congress to 'refine' voting rights bill House passes voting rights and elections reform bill MORE (R-Calif.) recently held a cocktail party for him.

Most Republican candidates have tried to reduce Trump’s role in their campaigns. Republican Bob Hugin, a former health-care executive, is running a surprisingly strong race against Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden holds off punishing Saudi crown prince, despite US intel Senate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration MORE (D-N.J.) by drawing a contrast with the president on certain issues like taxes even though he served as Trump’s state finance chairman in 2016.

But Webber is running a different campaign, betting that he needs to embrace the president, in an effort to turn out Trump loyalists in the district if he is to beat Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor.

“Looking at other Republicans in New Jersey, most are taking a relatively hands-off approach to the president,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a longtime political observer in New Jersey and political science professor at Montclair State University.

“I’m sure that the motivation was to drive up fundraising outside the district and shore up support within his base, but if the base isn’t shored up by September, he’s got a problem,” she said.

Webber’s embrace of Trump is most clearly seen in his support for the president’s tax cuts, which have proven a tougher sell for the GOP because of the SALT deductions’ impact on high-tax states like New Jersey.

A recent leaked poll, commissioned by the Republican National Committee (RNC), shows that Republicans have “lost the messaging battle on the issue.” And the June Monmouth poll found that 40 percent of those polled in the district approve of the taw law, while 43 percent disapprove.

All but one House member from New Jersey — Rep. Tom MacArthurThomas (Tom) Charles MacArthurChamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch Republican David Richter wins NJ primary in race to challenge Rep. Andy Kim What to watch in New Jersey's primaries on Tuesday MORE (R) — voted against the law late last year because of the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions in a state with one of the highest property taxes in the country. Frelinghuysen didn’t vote for the legislation because of the SALT deduction caps.

Webber says that he doesn’t support the SALT deduction cap — and would work to eliminate it or raise the cap if elected — but slams Sherrill and Democrats for their opposition to the tax package as a whole because he believes that “no district in the state benefits more than the 11th.”

“Voting against that bill from my perspective is like winning the World Series four games to one, and worrying about the one game you lost,” Webber said in a recent sit-down interview with The Hill. “It’s overall a very good thing. I would have supported it.”

For her part, Sherrill has painted Webber as outside the mainstream of New Jersey lawmakers, while arguing that he can’t simultaneously be against the SALT deduction cap and also for the overall legislation.

“That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how the tax law is paid for, which is paid for on the backs of New Jerseyans. You can’t really have it both ways,” she told The Hill in a phone interview.

Webber is also embracing Trump’s immigration agenda, accusing Sherrill of flirting with what he describes as the “hard left.”

“My opponent is playing footsie with the hard left of her party and is frankly for that reason soft on immigration,” said Webber, who won Trump’s support in part because of issues like border security.

Whether Webber can win in November is in doubt, particularly in a race with no incumbent. Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, has been heralded as a top Democratic recruit.

And she is hammering Webber, arguing that he won’t rise above his “own partisan brand of politics.”

“People in this district really want to see new leadership,” Sherrill said. “The fact that the president endorsed, the Tea Party endorsed, I think concerns people here because they want to see someone … who’s going to put the country before party.”

Carl Golden, a veteran GOP strategist in New Jersey, praised Webber as a “tireless campaigner,” adding there’s “still there is a pretty substantial residue of Republican strength” in the 11th District.

But he said the question at the end of the race will be whether Webber was able to overcome his reliance on Trump.

“I don’t think [taxes] will be the turning point issue,” Golden said. “The issue is more the president than anything else,” Golden said.

“He can’t break with Trump or try to distance himself from Trump,” he added. “I think he’s facing what a lot of Republican candidates are facing: How do you deal with Trump’s presence and persona?”