Hanover, N.J. — Jay Webber says he likes the president just fine. All the same, it is obvious that President Trump could be more of a liability than an asset on the campaign trail in northern New Jersey. Besides, Webber is much more comfortable with the safer GOP old guard.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., walks on stage in the ballroom of the Hanover Marriot, “It’s A Long Way to the Top” blares through the speakers, the crowd erupts, and Webber beams.
Webber and Ryan stand side-by-side in front of a massive American flag. Jackets are off. Sleeves are rolled half-way up in the cliche politician style. It is straight out of 2012, and it is working. When the speaker shouts, “What’s up North Jersey?” the suburbanites cheer as if Donald Trump were some B-list celebrity still flipping condos in not so far away New York City.
Speaker of the House for just a couple more months, Ryan enjoys residual star power in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. Two years ago, Trump squeaked a win out over Hillary Clinton here by a point. Four years earlier, with Ryan as his running mate, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney carried the district by six points. Another less scientific measure: Not a single person sports a #MAGA hat tonight.
“No pressure, but we, the rest of the country, we're all counting on you, North Jersey, to deliver this man to the United States Congress,” Ryan told the crowd. Republicans must keep this seat red or, he said, turn Congress over to the “unhinged” left led by “Nancy Pelosi and her clones.” So much is at stake, Ryan tells the crowd, that “you need to talk to your neighbors and even your relatives in this election.”
That is a message not lost on Republicans or Democrats. If Pelosi wants to retake the speaker’s gavel, her party must win in districts like this one, and this district in particular has the DCCC salivating. Democratic operatives couldn’t piece together more perfect demographics. The voters are white, well-educated, upper middle class — the exact kind predisposed to cringe at gauche presidential gesticulations.
Webber knows this. That may be why he praises some Trump policies without mentioning Trump's name. He hypes a rebuilt military, a low unemployment rate, and above all else a booming economy. “You like winning? Well, we got good news. We’re winning!” Webber shouts before adding, “With all this winning going on, why would we ever want to do something different?”
The kids from Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, a local Jewish school named for the great grandfather of the president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, get a shout out. Trump, however, does not. Webber ends the night without using his name once.
The candidate walks off stage and starts shaking hands, posing for pictures with, and kissing the babies of the almost 250 attendees. This post-rally ritual lasts about as long as the brief on-stage remarks. While talking with those waiting for selfies and a quick word with the candidates, it becomes clear why Webber tacked toward Ryan and away from Trump.
John Kennington watched from the back of the ballroom with his middle-school-aged daughter. “I am a New Yorker and Trump is a New Yorker so I’ve always been enamored with him,” he admits. But after living in New Jersey and commuting into the city daily, Kennington says his Garden State neighbors might be “getting sort of tired of it. I think they like that [Trump] is taking on issues that need to be taken on where Ryan did it in a politically correct way instead of in your face.”
How does he feel about the speaker and the president? “I would say they both have the same message, the difference is just style.”
Janet DeMeo and Sharon Battaglino tend to agree through their own thick accents. They agree that Ryan “absolutely is still possible here.” They both don’t know, however, whether Trump would get the same sort of reaction. “A lot of people love trump but a lot of people don’t like the way he presents himself,” Battaglino says. “They stand behind him but they don’t care for the way he presents his policies.”
It would not take Trump much to stump for Webber. He has visited his golf club in Bedminster eight times already this year just 30 minutes away. It could be worthwhile for Trump. He needs to help Republicans hold 24 seats to hold onto the House of Representatives.
So why hasn’t the president paid a visit? First, Trump might do more harm than good. Second, Webber has overcome the odds to keep the race within the margin of error without Trump. Behind stage, Webber tells me he isn’t about “to send out a flare to him when he is traversing the country campaigning.”
Presidential support came out of the blue earlier in September, anyway, and on Twitter, of course. Webber looked at his wife when it happened and said, “I guess we just got endorsed by the president, so we better retweet it and thank him.” Pushed about a presidential visit though, Webber calls the president “the leader of the free world” and promises he would “welcome him.”
A Harvard-educated lawyer, his feelings on Trump are complicated. “I don’t agree with everything he says or does. But I agree with most of what he does,” Webber admits. “I’ll always stick up for the people of this district and if he wants to help me do that I welcome him.”
A state assemblyman for more than a decade, his feelings on Ryan are more complimentary. “I admire the speaker because he is someone who emphasizes economic growth, confidence, optimism,” things that Webber says “unite people and that’s been my campaign.”
It is a contrast that perfectly reflects the dynamics of the district he is trying to win. And so Webber talks about how everyone’s 529 plans are fatter and everyone’s 401(k) accounts are swelling and he tells me that if the balances aren’t getting bigger “fire your investment adviser.” After a ten-minute interview, it’s clear a good economy and a low unemployment rate are the basis of the Webber campaign.
This has been working. A June Monmouth Poll had Webber trailing opponent Mikie Sherrill by just 40 to 38 percent. An October Monmouth Poll had him trailing her by just 48 to 44 percent. In other words, he's not winning, but he's kept it close enough that he could win.
What Webber needs now is money. The Republican has been outspent from the beginning. Sherrill has raised a cool $7 million. He just recently broke the six-figure mark with $1.2 million. Outside spending has been one-sided with $1.4 million spent to boost Sherril compared to just $137,538 spent to support Webber.
It is a perfect example of the “green wave” that Ryan described moments ago onstage. “We see liberals on the coasts trying to buy a new Congress,” the speaker warned. “Michael Bloomberg wrote a $100 million check, himself."
Trump may be a liability politically for Webber. But Trump is still a windfall financially. The candidate won’t get a public rally with the president in New Jersey. He will get a private fundraiser with the president at Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Behind by just a couple of points with less than three weeks to go, it is still a long way to the top. Fundraising with Trump in private and campaigning with Ryan in public, Webber hopes to ride out the blue wave in the suburbs.