As evidence accumulated over the past year that a blue wave will wash over the House in November, some two dozen Republicans resigned or retired from Congress, fearing that they would be wiped out by anti-Trump backlash. One of those lawmakers was New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, who is retiring after over two decades in his seat.
But the nominee to replace Frelinghuysen is further to the right on a host of social issues, from abortion to the Second Amendment, putting him somewhat out of step with the Garden State’s affluent, highly educated 11th District. Throughout his career, Assemblyman Jay Webber, who was endorsed by President Trump Thursday as “outstanding in every way,” has also been a particularly vocal crusader against LGBT rights.
That history has been one flashpoint in Webber’s campaign against Democratic opponent Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor.
In a six-figure ad buy released this week on Webber’s “harmful record,” Sherrill mentions his multiple votes against gay marriage and support of conversion therapy to “fix” gay teenagers. She also points out that he voted against an equal pay bill in the state Legislature this year.
National Democrats, too, are calling out Webber as disconnected from the district he would represent.
“Assemblyman Webber’s anti-LGBT record is simply disqualifying, not just for Democrats or Independents, but for all Garden State voters,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Spokesman Evan Lukaske told TPM in a statement.
The National Republican Congressional Committee and Webber did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment. In a statement responding to the Sherill ad, Webber called his Democratic opponent “unhinged—showing her progressive-left true self” and denied, despite his voting record, that he opposes equal pay for equal work.
The 11th District is one of the seats the DCCC has targeted as part of its “red to blue” effort to flip the House. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball also rate the NJ-11 race as “lean Democrat.”
One reason may be the wide gulf on social issues between the outgoing House veteran and the GOP nominee to replace him. Frelinghuysen is a fiscal conservative who favored stricter sentencing for hate crimes, abortion rights, and prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Webber, a Catholic father of seven, was backed by the Susan B. Anthony List as a “passionate defender of unborn children.”
Frelinghuysen was even endorsed in 2016 by Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group that supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. The group came out against Webber’s candidacy, condemning his “repugnant anti-LGBT track record” and “history of prejudice.”
Matters of sexual orientation have been a particular focus for Webber since his days at Harvard Law School in the late 1990s. The New Jersey Republican served as the president of the Society for Law, Life and Religion student group. In an interview at the time, Webber told the Harvard Law Record that homosexuality was a choice that individuals could help be led away from through “a deep belief in Jesus Christ.”
During Webber’s tenure in the New Jersey Assembly, where he’s served since 2008, he became a stalwart opponent of civil unions and gay marriage. In a March 2012 speech from the Assembly floor, Webber said that legalizing marriage between gay couples would “override or redefine the institution of marriage for everyone else in this society.” He repeatedly co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman, even after gay marriage was legalized in the state. In 2013, he voted against a bill to ban LGBT conversion therapy.
More recently, Webber has rejected various pieces of transgender rights legislation. He voted against a 2017 bill to prohibit health insurers from discriminating based on gender identity and, in both 2017 and 2018, bills to establish a trans equality task force.
Webber’s reputation as the “conservative conscience of the state Legislature” served him well when he was representing New Jersey’s staunchly Republican 26th Legislative District. But Clinton lost the wealthy, suburban 11th Congressional District by only 1 point in the 2016 presidential election.
In an emailed statement to TPM, Sherrill said, “In 2018, it is difficult to imagine that we would have an Assemblyman in New Jersey who does not believe in equal treatment under the law for our LGBTQ community,” Sherrill said.
In the only public survey of the race, Monmouth University found Sherrill beating Webber 40 percent to 38 percent among all potential voters—a statistical dead heat.