By Joe Malinconico, NJSpotlight.com
Republican Shmuley Boteach’s campaign for New Jersey’s 9th District congressional seat started out as a novelty act. He was the guy with the colorful resume, a rabbi who wrote “Kosher Sex,’’ a man who had been Michael Jackson’s spiritual counselor, the host of a weekly radio program and a reality show about relationships.
But that changed in August when the news broke that Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife had given $500,000 in PAC donations to support Boteach's campaign. Suddenly, the Republican National Congressional Committee upgraded Boteach’s status to “Contender,” a designation that held promise for additional support for the campaign against 16-year Democratic incumbent Bill Pascrell.
“It changes the dynamics of the race, but it’s not clear whether it will change the outcome,’’ said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “I think Pascrell is still the heavy favorite to win.’’
In fact, Pascrell is such a strong favorite that The Polling Institute at Monmouth University decided not to do any pre-election polling in the district, earmarking its resources to what it views as more competitive races.
“It gives the Republicans some extra air time,’’ said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute, referring to the Adelson money. “But it doesn’t change the underlying demographics of that district. It’s decidedly Democratic.’’
New Jersey voter registration records show that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 9th District by almost a 3-1 margin. For the June primary, there were 136,426 registered Democrats, compared to 51,595 Republicans. The 193,846 undeclared voters represent the largest group.
“I don’t see the district leaning Republican anytime soon,’’ said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the school’s PublicMind survey research group.
Until the new congressional maps were redrawn last winter, the 9th District mostly was composed of Bergen County towns and included some parts of Hudson. The new 9th District lost some of Bergen County and added some of Passaic County, including Paterson, Pascrell’s hometown.
The redistricting set up a titanic $4.7 million clash between Pascrell and Rep. Steve Rothman in the Democratic primary. Pascrell emerged the victor, despite the fact that political pundits had considered him the underdog because there are more voters from Bergen County than Passaic in the district.
Soon after the Adelsons made the $500,000 donation for Boteach, Pascrell sent his supporters an email warning that he was in danger of being outspent in the campaign. Because Pascrell spent $2.8 million to defeat Rothman, he had only about $250,000 in the bank as of June 30.
Pascrell, 75, has attacked the $500,000 from the Adelsons as the product of a wrong-minded new federal campaign finance law allowing unlimited contributions from so-called super PACs. He also has criticized Boteach for taking money from Adelson, whose casino operation is reportedly being probed by the U.S. Justice Department.
“He’ll have to suffer with the people who he’s getting the money from,’’ said Pascrell, who is also a former state Assemblyman. “We know their record. We know they’re being investigated. If he wants to take money from them, fine.’’
After winning as an underdog in June, Pascrell said he’s working hard to make sure he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of an upset in November. “There is no one who is entitled to public office,’’ he said. “You’ve got to earn it.’’
But Boteach, 45, of Englewood, says Pascrell is taking things for granted. That’s the theme of his series of YouTube “Where’s Bill?’’ campaign videos, in which the rabbi approaches various Patersonians and asks them if they have seen Pascrell lately. At times, Boteach uses an empty suit with a “Bill” name-tag as a prop in the videos, a move he says was inspired by Clint Eastwood's GOP convention conversation with an empty chair.