The congressional race in New Jersey’s 5th District is a bitter one, pitting a rarity — a hardline conservative Republican congressman from the Northeast, Scott Garrett — against Josh Gottheimer, a lawyer who was a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton and an executive at Microsoft.
Now the Iran nuclear deal has become a battleground issue, with Mr. Garrett hoping to chip away at Jewish support for his Democratic challenger with an attack ad.
That’s odd, because both candidates opposed the deal.
Not only that, the ad’s contention — that Mr. Gottheimer endorses the Iran policies of the Obama administration — is unfounded. Even more bizarre, when I asked the Garrett campaign to substantiate the claim, it produced evidence that Mr. Gottheimer favors a tough-on-Iran policy.
Iran is getting play because of the district’s substantive Jewish constituency. Redistricting after the 2010 census added heavily Jewish suburbs like Teaneck to what for decades had been a rural GOP stronghold, but Mr. Garrett still has won handily in the last elections.
Yet Democrats are optimistic about change this election. In part, that’s because of the effect they hope an unpopular Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, will have down-ticket.
Mr. Gottheimer, who is Jewish, is running liberal-to-centrist on domestic issues, but he is hawkish on Israel, which gets its own section on his policy page.
“Israel is a bastion of stability in a region that is prone to radical, frequent change, and Israel’s commitment to equality, freedom of expression and religion, and democratic values is unprecedented across the globe, across history, and especially across the Middle East,” he writes on that page.
Mr. Gottheimer has not been shy about opposing the deal, reached last year, that provided sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for that country rolling back its nuclear development. In a column a year ago in this newspaper, written before he entered the congressional race, Mr. Gottheimer listed five “myths” that he said the deal’s proponents propagated. Mr. Gottheimer also made clear that had he been in Congress at the time, he would have been among the minority of Democrats who opposed it.
“Myths can’t change the unfortunate reality that this deal simply is not good enough,” he said.
In March 2015, Mr. Gottheimer also made clear whose side he was on after Senator Robert Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator and the lead Democrat opposing the deal, came under investigation for alleged improprieties in his dealings with a donor. The more conspiratorial-minded observers suggested that the inquiry was the Obama administration’s revenge on the senator. The New York Times quoted Mr. Gottheimer as telling Mr. Menendez at a Jewish event, “We will always have your back.”
So ears perked up recently, when Mr. Garrett released a radio ad in which a woman, in a tough North Jersey accent, pronounced that Mr. Gottheimer “endorses Obama’s bad foreign policies, policies … that pay Iran billions and won’t stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
I asked Mr. Garrett’s campaign about the ad, and its evidence in support of its argument was tenuous at best: An appearance on Fox News in September 2009, when Mr. Gottheimer, speaking as a commentator, praised Obama as being more proactive on the global stage than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and included Iran as an example.
“When it came to Iran and talking about the global economy, he showed a serious difference from his predecessor, which was, ‘We’re here to reach out to you, to work together and to actually bring change a different way to the world,’” was the Gottheimer quote provided by the Garrett campaign.
Mr. Gottheimer, speaking on September 27, 2009, was talking about Mr. Obama’s revelation, days earlier, that Iran had hidden a uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. Mr. Obama was furious, and appeared with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to say that he would hold Iran accountable under international law.
Mr. Obama made good on that threat, and the subsequent U.N. resolutions were the predicate for toughened sanctions — which were, in fact, stronger than the sanctions approved under President Bush. It was a moment when Mr. Obama, Israel, and the pro-Israel community were aligned on Iran policy.
In the same segment, Mr. Gottheimer said, “What we saw differently was instead of going it alone, immediately when we knew there was a problem this week, he was standing next to Sarkozy and Brown, and the leaders together said, ‘Here’s our strategy, applying serious pressure on Iran.’”
Otherwise Sarah Neibart, the Garrett campaign manager who replied to me, cited support for Mr. Gottheimer from leading Democrats, who did support the Iran nuclear deal. Support by Democrats for a Democrat is hardly exceptional, however.
There is a twist: The Gottheimer supporter who alerted me to the radio ad also dug up a 2006 letter signed by 12 members of Congress, urging Mr. Bush to renew direct talks with Iran, without preconditions.
“Although we are all familiar with the inflammatory rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad, there are certainly other significant governmental bodies in Iran that have demonstrated moderation and eagerness for dialogue,” the letter said.
One of the signatories for the strategy, which came to define how Obama approached Iran — seeking out the moderates for direct talks — was Scott Garrett.
Ms. Neibart’s rejoinder: “I just want to confirm that you are contacting us about a 10-year-old letter.”
But not so much from a campaign basing its accusations against Gottheimer on a seven-year-old TV segment — and one in which he favored a tough approach on Iran.
JTA WIRE SERVICE
Since this JTA piece came out, Mr. Garrett’s office has responded to it by saying that he has been against the Iran deal ever since it was announced, that other Republicans denounced it as well. On the other hand, it charged, Mr. Gottheimer waited until after a series of scheduled fundraisers with Democratic stalwarts, most of whom favored the deal, were completed before he came out against it. The office’s spokesperson pointed out that other prominent Democrats, including New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, Representative Eliot Engel of the Bronx, and Representative Brad Sherman of California all rejected the deal before Mr. Gottheimer did so publicly.
According to the Garrett office’s timeline, those three Democrats, all of whom are in office, came out against the deal between August 6 and August 7 last year, while Mr. Gottheimer’s anti-deal column in this newspaper was published on August 18.