Republican Rep. Scott Garrett and Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer verbally jabbed each other during the campaign’s only debate on Monday.
The U.S. House candidates are locked in New Jersey’s most closely watched race this year and clashed Monday on WRNJ radio.
What started with the candidates disagreeing over tax policy ended in name-calling. Gottheimer said Garrett was a bigot. The seven-term incumbent called the one-time Bill Clinton speechwriter a liar.
The race has seen more outside spending than any other U.S. House campaign in New Jersey, with outside groups doling out about $6 million on advertising, according to Federal Election Commission records.
A closer look at the roughly hour-long debate:
‘BIGOT’ VS. ‘IT’S NOT TRUE’
The candidates didn’t shout or raise their voices, but they did unleash harsh language at each other. The testiest part came when Garrett was asked to clarify statements he made in 2015 that he refused to donate to a national Republican campaign group because it supported morally questionable candidates. Gottheimer has seized on the controversy and the fallout has seen corporate backers like PNC Bank and State Farm pull their support.
Garrett said he thinks everyone has the right to run for office, adding that Gottheimer distorted and lied about Garrett’s position, even paying for planes with banners flying over New Jersey beaches.
Gottheimer responded that it was fellow Republicans who confirmed the 2015 report that fueled the controversy.
“I think people have a right to know if their congressman is a bigot,” Gottheiemer said. “I understand you’re desperate and your back is against the wall because you’re losing.”
Garrett responded by saying that Gottheimer spent $10 million on ads attacking him on a false premise.
“Don’t put the blame on other people when it was you that spent $10 million from outside special interest so you could put up the billboards, so you could say the nasty things. So you could use language like bigots … when you know it’s not true,” Garrett said.
Garrett defended his use of a farming tax credit after Gottheimer said his opponent used the credit while doing nothing to lower other taxes.
“You should remember where you are,” Garrett said. “New Jersey is the Garden State … Those are the programs that actually keep New Jersey green.”
Gottheimer responded saying Garrett voted against “every farm bill that’s ever been out,” but didn’t respond to the attack directly and instead called his opponent a tea-party extremist.
The biggest policy difference seemed to emerge over taxes. Gottheimer said he would apply for more grants and said Garrett is missing opportunities to bring more federal dollars to the district, which includes part of Bergen, Passaic, Warren and Sussex counties. Garrett said he was in favor of letting people keep more of their money.
Gottheimer said he favored banning guns for people on the government’s terrorist watch list. Garrett has said he opposes allowing terrorists to have guns but voted against a Democratic measure to add the provision to legislation.