PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — In a congressional district across the river from New York filled with million-dollar homes and massive shopping malls, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton is waging a well-funded campaign against a seven-term incumbent Republican who has been dragged down by reports he challenged his party's support for gay candidates.
As a conservative in a deep blue state, Rep. Scott Garrett figures he gets to read his political obituary every two years. He has fought off challenges from Democrats since 2002 by prevailing in the rural northwestern areas of New Jersey's 5th District as well as its wealthier — and more populous — suburbs closer to New York City.
This time the challenge is coming from Josh Gottheimer, and the race is being closely watched as Democrats seek to make gains in the GOP-controlled House.
They will need to win Republican-held suburban districts across the country to capture House control. That quest has long seemed like a long shot, but GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's slide in the polls has raised Democratic hopes.
Garrett has been hampered by a controversy over reports last year that he wouldn't donate to a national Republican committee because it supported gay candidates. The fallout has seen corporate donors like PNC Bank and State Farm pull their support.
Gottheimer has taken advantage and raised $4 million through September, compared to Garrett's $1.9 million, according to federal campaign disclosures.
Garrett "has been able to dress up as somebody less extreme, but now I think the facts are coming out," Gottheimer said recently. "We have the resources now to let people know who he is."
With the 5th District's rural counties a Garrett stronghold, densely populated Bergen County to the east figures to be where the election is decided.
For Garrett to keep his seat, he will have to convince voters like Paula Lightbody, of Paramus, a suburb northwest of Manhattan that is best known for its acres of high-end shopping malls.
Lightbody said this month that she was still mulling over whether to vote for Garrett, and she cited his vote against reauthorizing and expanding the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 as a demerit.
"That's something that goes to your heart," Lightbody, 61, said as she inflated Halloween decorations on her front lawn, next to a large sign supporting local Republican candidates. Still, she added, Garrett "is for New Jersey and for lowering taxes, and he wants there to be a middle class and not just an upper class and a lower class."
Gottheimer, a former corporate strategist for Microsoft, has called himself a "new Democrat," socially liberal and fiscally conservative and not averse to reducing regulations on businesses and lowering taxes. It's a message he hopes will resonate in the district's key suburban areas.
The increasingly bitter race has included an online ad from Gottheimer featuring bleeped-out expletives from a grandmother about Garrett's positions and a visit from celebrity chef Tom Colicchio to slam Garrett's record on food safety issues.
In TV ads, Garrett hammers Gottheimer over a lawsuit — later dismissed — from a woman who accused him of intimidating her at his Washington, D.C., apartment building. The woman said she was fearful Gottheimer was going to hit her after he waved his finger at her and spoke aggressively in the lobby. The Gottheimer campaign calls the ad "categorically false."
The House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic candidates, began a $650,000 cable TV ad this week that describes Garrett as "the anti-gay bigot who puts his own agenda over New Jersey." It cites a 2010 Garrett vote against health benefits for 9/11 emergency workers and one this year allowing Confederate flags to be displayed in Department of Veterans' Affairs cemeteries.
It's not yet clear how Trump's sliding numbers will affect Garrett, who released a statement denouncing Trump's taped comments about women. Gottheimer called it a "typical act of desperation," and Garrett later said he would still vote for Trump.
Garrett said he has always planned to vote for the party's nominee, and for Republican candidates in every race.
"We simply cannot afford Hillary Clinton in the White House," he said. "Or someone in Congress who has endorsed all of her positions.'"
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this story.