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The New Jersey race that could be key to Democrats retaking the House

Congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill talks to volunteers at her campaign headquarters in Fairfield, N.J., in early July. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

FAIRFIELD, N.J. — Inside Mikie Sherrill’s campaign headquarters, a series of brightly colored, hand-drawn helicopters taped to the wall serve as motivation for the House candidate’s staffers. “Volunteers keep Mikie flying,” each reads, in an allusion to her time as a Sea King helicopter pilot.

On a sweltering July morning at the office in a two-story building, with a gray-plum exterior that scans as brick, 20 miles northwest of Newark, a dry-erase board counts down the days until Election Day. About two dozen young volunteers working the phones and organizing their door-to-door routes don’t seem to need reminders about how little time remains to campaign for Sherrill or why they’re there. They truly believe she can win the seat and become the first Democrat in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District to do so since 1985. And this year, there’s a good chance they’re right.

Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen has represented the district since 1995 but announced in January that he won’t be seeking reelection this year, denying the party the advantages of incumbency. With five congressional seats in play, New Jersey could determine whether or not the Democrats win back the House of Representatives.

Sherrill has the sort of personality, biography and politics that make her a serious contender in the 11th district. She’s a former Navy pilot, a former federal prosecutor and a mother of four who is passionate about tax reform.

The 11th district skews Republican in part because it’s wealthy and New Jersey has the highest real estate taxes in the country, but the GOP tax reform plan’s cap on State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions is expected to hit voters here hard. Sherrill’s economic proposals, which include the ability to deduct state and local taxes, are expected to win over more moderate Republicans who want lower taxes but find President Trump and his allies in Congress indefensible. A Stockton University poll found that 51 percent of New Jerseyans think Trump’s job performance is “poor,” compared to only 29 percent who think he’s doing “excellent” or “good.”

“What people in this district are concerned about is the fact that it’s so hard to raise a family here. It’s just so costly, and Congress hasn’t been helping by raising our taxes. This recent tax bill has gotten rid of our ability to deduct our state and local taxes,” Sherrill told Yahoo News. “We need to get a tax plan that invests in our families, because right now we have a lot of families that don’t even know how they’re going to make ends meet at the end of the month, much less how they’re going to set aside money for retirement or their kid’s education. So that’s what I’ve been critically focused on.”

A street sign welcomes motorists to Fairfield, the home of Sherrill’s campaign for the 11th Congressional District. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

The new tax changes have been worse for New Jersey than any other state in the nation, Sherrill said, because the Garden State is already getting less back for the dollars it sends to Washington: 74 cents back for every dollar sent to D.C.

Polls consistently bear out the political truism that the party not in the White House has better odds during the midterms because of an enthusiasm gap among voters. According to Monmouth University polling, Sherrill has the advantage over Republican Jay Webber among all potential voters by 40 percent to 38 percent.

Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray describes the district as currently purple but notes it will likely take on a bluer or redder hue as the candidates become better defined.

“As we move forward, different issues will come into play, and the candidates will have an impact as voters pay attention to who those candidates are,” Murray told Yahoo News. “One thing we’ll see as we get closer to November is whether Mikie Sherrill fits into that mold of candidates who might not be in the progressive wing of the party but are the right fit for their district.”

In Democratic circles, much of the buzz about Sherrill stems from her biography. She was inspired to enter the Naval Academy by her grandfather’s experiences as a bomber pilot in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. She graduated from flight school with the first class of women eligible for combat and served as a pilot in Europe and the Middle East before returning home to study law and become a federal prosecutor. According to Sherrill, she decided to run for Congress in part because the values she shared with her grandfather are under attack by President Trump, such as the president’s equivocating about last year’s alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

“Should people denounce neo-Nazis? I can’t believe in 2018 we’re asking that question,” she said. “People should denounce neo-Nazis. I don’t think most of us would disagree with that statement. Certainly not me.”

Yahoo News journalist Michael Walsh interviews Sherrill at her campaign headquarters. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

Republican candidate Webber, an assemblyman representing New Jersey’s 26th legislative district, is a known entity in New Jersey politics. He’s a conservative Republican who went to Harvard Law School and founded “New Jersey Reagan Day,” an annual gathering of conservatives celebrating former President Ronald Reagan’s legacy. In short, he’s a standard, dyed-in-the-wool Republican.

Murray said this could lead to trouble for Webber, since voters are looking for someone fresh who breaks the mold. He said this is one of the reasons Conor Lamb won in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Lamb wasn’t a typical Democrat, but he was the right fit for the district, he said.

“Webber will come off as people would expect, a typical Republican. Whereas Mikie Sherrill will present something new without scaring off moderate voters, and that’s the key,” Murray said.

Webber did not respond to an interview request from Yahoo News. In a press release he said that his support for Trump will not be an issue with voters because they have other, more pressing concerns.

“They’re not particularly interested in the scandal of the day in Washington,” Webber said in a statement. “They want to know, ‘are you going to lower my taxes?’ ‘Are you going to get the government off my back?’”

Both candidates, in fact, are presenting themselves as tax cutters. Webber released a statement accusing Sherrill of supporting tax hikes, and she countered by accusing him of supporting over-taxation.

New Jersey Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Parsippany, speaks in the state legislature, March 2017. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

While Sherrill speaks passionately about tax reform, clean energy, women’s rights and the need to rebuild New Jersey’s crumbling infrastructure, she also takes issue with blanket statements dismissing the state’s politics as thoroughly corrupt. She said the patriotism and civic concern of its people too often get lost in the narrative. She said New Jersey residents tend to believe that true change to improve people’s lives is possible if “we do government right and well,” but that this unfortunately hasn’t happened lately.

“I think that because we’re so invested in the country and we have so much at stake here — we have critical infrastructure needs, we have critical economic needs, we are quite frankly the piggy bank for the rest of the country, so growing our economy isn’t just good for New Jersey, it’s good for this country. This is where well-run government can make or break us. In New Jersey we haven’t seen a lot of well-run government in recent years,” Sherrill said.

Voters in her district may disagree over what’s coming out of Washington, Sherrill said, but there’s wide agreement across the political spectrum regarding what’s good locally, starting with the ability to deduct state and local taxes.

“I think many of us feel that the post-World War II economy is coming to an end, and so our place in the global economy is changing,” Sherrill said. “How we’re going to provide economic security to people is changing. That’s something we’re very focused on here in the 11th District. It’s really a key and kind of the lynchpin to how the country goes.”

Sherrill doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that partisan rancor now seems to rule Washington and that under 20 percent of the current members in the House of Representatives served in the military. More than 70 percent of the House was comprised of military veterans in 1972, the year she was born.

Sherrill flew Sea King helicopters in the U.S. Navy for about 10 years, during postings in Europe and the Middle East. (Photo: Mikie Sherrill)

“When I was a helicopter aircraft commander and people were entering the helicopter I never said, ‘OK, I’m only taking Democrats on this mission, or I’m only taking Republicans on this mission.’ I couldn’t have told you the political preference of most of the people in my squadron. But I knew they were all Americans and we were going to get our mission accomplished,” she said.

For Sherrill, New Jersey’s 11th District is a microcosm of changes happening throughout the country as a whole.

“Morristown is the heart of the American Revolution, as I’m sure you’ve heard, in my district. And maybe for the first time since the American Revolution, New Jersey is a battleground state,” Sherrill said. “It’s the epicenter of all these narratives — coming together right here.”

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