Republicans in a crucial New Jersey swing district have a choice in the July primary: pick a millennial woman with organized labor ties or a middle-aged man with connections to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
In choosing a candidate they hope will unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in the 3rd District, Republicans are either going to go with Kate Gibbs, a 34-year-old former elected official who as a suburban millennial woman comes from a crucial demographic that in 2018 abandoned the GOP, or David Richter, a wealthy 53-year-old former construction executive who spent decades living far from the district but whose campaign is getting help from one of Trump’s top advisers.
The primary takes place in one of the most competitive congressional districts in the state, and in the type of district that’s crucial to control of the House — where in 2018 Kim defeated Republican Tom MacArthur, Trump loyalist, by 1 percentage point for the open seat.
The race highlights the Republican Party’s increasing problems with women in the era of Trump, whose Twitter attacks and rhetoric attacking women politicians and media personalities cost him support with women, according to polling data. CNN exit polls from 2018 showed women favoring Democrats by the 19 points.
“Across the country, we know suburban unaffiliated women had a huge impact on the 2018 elections. I think I’m ideally suited as a young woman who has spent my whole life in the Philadelphia suburbs,” Gibbs said in a phone interview.
Richter has run ads comparing Gibbs to the “Jersey Shore” TV personality Snooki over two arrests when she was in her early 20s, while Gibbs has alleged business ties between Richter to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The attacks are flying across the district in TV ads and mailers, from the Jersey shore to the Philadelphia suburbs.
“The fact is if she was a man she’d be out of this race already,” Richter said in a phone interview. “Nobody would be supporting her and she’d be forced out based upon her track record and her criminal record.”
The district is cleaved in two. The more moderate Republican organization of Burlington County, which includes the Philadelphia suburbs, backs Gibbs, while the party’s more conservative faction in Ocean County, much of which is on the Jersey Shore, supports Richter.
Trump has not weighed in on the race personally, but he looms large.
The primary wouldn’t have happened without Trump’s intervention in the neighboring 2nd District, when freshman Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew, seeing his support within the party collapse because of his refusal to back impeaching Trump, switched parties at the president’s urging in late December.
Richter had been the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to challenge Van Drew the Democrat. But Trump’s allies sought to roll out the welcome mat by clearing the primary for the newly-minted Republican
Richter agreed to get out of the race by running in the 3rd District instead. And Team Trump helped him out with a speaking spot at a January rally for the president at the Jersey shore. Bill Stepien, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, also signed on as an adviser to Richter’s campaign.
“In an ideal world, sure, you’d have one strong candidate the party gets behind that can take on a first term incumbent,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “In this case, they had to try to solve the Jeff Van Drew problem and this is probably the least worst way to try to solve it.”
Even before Richter switched districts, several prominent Republican women warned local leaders not to back him.
“The historic lack of support for women seeking office at all levels has resulted in a lack of diversity among Republican candidates and officeholders in the party,” the women, including former state Sen. Diane Allen, said in a January statement.
The criminal record to which Richter referred are two arrests of Gibbs when she was in her early 20s. She pleaded guilty to shoplifting about $80 from a Kohl’s department store in 2006, and was arrested for marijuana possession in 2008, though those charges were ultimately dropped. When she was in her late 20s, she also paid a fine for drinking alcohol on the beach.
Richter’s campaign has used those incidents in an ad comparing her to the “Jersey Shore” personality Snooki, evoking a show that created a lot of ill will along New Jersey’s coast for the stereotypes it perpetuated.
Gibbs — who in February said she “made some poor choices” as a young woman — has her own knock on Richter: district shopper.
Richter grew up in the 3rd District but spent much of his adulthood elsewhere. He raised his family half a state away, near Princeton, where his daughters still attend school. In early 2018, he briefly rented an apartment in Miami Beach, shortly after the local Republican House member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, announced her retirement, leading to speculation he planned to run for Congress there. In late 2019, he rented a home in the 2nd District to run for Congress there. Most recently, he signed a lease on a home in the 3rd District.
“Obviously we all know that David is seeking a seat in the House of Representatives, but it’s very clear he cares little to nothing about who he represents,” Gibbs said. “He was looking for a seat. That’s why he registered to vote down [in Florida]. Once he didn’t get the green light there, he went to the 2nd Congressional District and started renting a home there. And when he didn’t get it there he said ‘OK, I’ll try here.’“
Richter said he never intended to run for Congress in Florida, but considered moving his family there for the weather and lower taxes. He decided not to after his daughters said they wanted to finish school in New Jersey and “we realized New Jersey was our home.”
The campaigns’ back-and-forths have included international and local issues. Gibbs has criticized Richter over Hill International’s work at a public university in Libya during the Gaddafi regime, with her campaign saying he “bragged about doing business deals with terrorist regimes.”
Riichter said his company, which his father founded, worked there when the U.S. government loosened restrictions and allowed U.S. companies to do business with Libya.
Richter has hit Gibbs — who does business development for Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative Local 825 — over the Building Trades’ support for newly approved toll hikes on three major New Jersey highways.
Richter has also questioned why Gibbs is considered such an attractive candidate when she was bounced from the freeholder board in 2018 when the Democratic wave extended to Burlington County offices. One of the candidates who defeated her and her running mate had stopped actively campaigning after news accounts surfaced of a past domestic violence arrest.
Both RIchter and Gibbs express pro-Trump sentiments, though Richter has more to show for it.
He’s being advised by Stepien, who played a role in Van Drew’s party switch and who was recently named Trump’s deputy campaign manager. Gibbs was relegated to the audience at the Trump rally in January while Richter gave a speech.
“Certainly Bill Stepien wouldn’t be working for me if the Trump campaign hadn’t wanted him to. And I wouldn’t have been speaking at Trump’s Wildwood rally back in January if the Trump campaign hadn’t wanted me to,” Richter said.
Richter has a financial advantage in the race, having raised $772,000 as of April 1 — including $600,000 from his own pocket — to Gibbs’ $219,000.
Their platforms show subtle differences on the issues.
On immigration, Richter’s website says he’d “oppose across-the-board amnesty, seek to ban so-called sanctuary cities and states, support construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.”
Gibbs emphasizes support for a “tough, but fair” path to citizenship for children brought to the country illegally and calls for “enhanced border security, including physical barriers where necessary.” Both also pledged to advocate for the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst — a huge employer in the district.
It’s not clear how much the district-shopper label will hurt Richter. The last two members of Congress to represent the 3rd District lived elsewhere before being elected.
Kim, the Democratic incumbent, grew up in the district, but lived in Washington, D.C., for years before returning shortly before his run. And MacArthur, the two-term Republican Kim defeated, moved to the district from North Jersey in 2014 to run for the seat.
“I don’t think history has proven out that it’s been a big issue,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who supports Gibbs. “[Richter] does have some roots there, so it’s somewhat easily dismissed.”
Republican power broker George Gilmore — who helped Richter win the support of the Ocean County Republicans even though other party leaders had backed Gibbs in a screening committee — said he thinks the GOP base in Ocean County will be amped up in Trump ‘s reelection year, and that Gibbs’ arrest history won’t help her with voters.
Gilmore — who is appealing a conviction last year on three federal tax charges that forced him to step down from his post as Ocean County Republican chairman — said it wouldn’t have been as big a deal if Gibbs had come out with it before, when she first ran for freeholder in 2015.
“One could argue those are all minor discretions as a young adult. However, I think there was an obligation for her to disclose all those up front,” Gilmore said. “I think she would have put herself in a much better position if when she was running for freeholder she disclosed all that.”