Former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill landed a decisive victory over Republican state Assemblyman Jay Webber on Tuesday, and will become the first Democrat in decades to represent the 11th Congressional District.
“Now is the time we must challenge ourselves to do better, to resolve our differences, to realize that in this country we are at our best when our leaders lead with compassion, commitment and courage,” Sherrill, 46, told an exuberant crowd at the Parsippany Sheraton, where Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down concluded the celebration.
The Montclair resident, who was accompanied on the podium by her husband and four children, will succeed Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from Harding who is retiring after 24 years.
Unofficially, Sherrill garnered nearly 56 percent of the vote, to about 43 percent for Webber.
It was Sherrill’s first run for office, in a district where she did not reside at the outset. (The boundary bisects Montclair.)
In the neighboring 7th District, Democrat Tom Malinowksi, a former State Department official from the Obama adminstration, unseated Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, as Democrats regained control of the House for the first time since 2010.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), meanwhile, overcame an ethics scandal to beat back a challenge from Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharma executive who bankrolled his own campaign. Menendez won a third term by a margin of 53 percent to 44 percent, according to the Associated Press.
Statewide, voters also approved a proposal to borrow $500 million for school improvements.
Video: Mikie is flying high after winning Congressional seat
Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor, credited grassroots activists and a staff of millennials with helping her win the campaign, in which she raised significantly more money than Webber, a state legislator for a decade.
“Tonight I call on all of you to stay engaged,” she said, “to rebuild our democracy together, to restore trust in our government, and our faith in this country.”
“This is the power of us,” said Saily Avelenda of NJ 11th for Change, which for two years pressed Frelinghuysen in vain for town hall meetings.
“This is what democracy looks like when it works FOR the people, and we are incredibly proud to have been a part of this transformation in CD11….This is just the beginning.”
Avelenda has said her activism cost her a job at a bank, after Frelinghuysen called her out.
The Brady Campaign, the Sierra Club, the Progressive Turnout Project and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added their congratulations to Sherrill.
Spanning portions of Morris, Essex, Sussex and Passaic counties, the 11th District includes progressive and conservative areas.
Although opposition to President Trump was on the minds of Morristown voters, Sherrill mostly avoided Trump-bashing on the campaign trail.
Her core messages appeared to resonate widely with people from both parties who feel members of Congress “spend too much time fighting each other” instead of working for the common good, she said.
Video: Mikie Meets the Press as Congresswoman-elect:
“I think this is a real win for bipartisanship,” Sherrill said at a brief press conference after her victory speech.
“I have heard again and again from people who want to make sure we have quality and affordable healthcare, that we have a tax plan that invests in our families, that we have good infrastructure.”
Immediate priorities, Sherrill said, include working for bipartisan legislation to improve the region’s crumbling infrastructure–she called it vital for New Jersey’s economic growth–and for “some good gun safety legislation.”
She also thinks Veterans Administration facilities should be better prepared to help women veterans.
On Wednesday, Webber tweeted a thank you to his supporters. “Here’s to always working towards a future that can be better for everyone,” he said.
While Sherrill now can focus on reaching across the aisle, the race to get there was full of blistering TV- and mail attacks, fueled on both sides by assorted political action committees.
Sherrill painted Webber, a Harvard-educated lawyer who lives in Morris Plains, as an extreme conservative– endorsed by Trump, favored by the NRA, and opposed to Planned Parenthood, gay marriage and equal pay for women.
Webber portrayed “Montclair Mikie” as a too-liberal “pal” of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi whose stances on immigration and healthcare would be disastrous and costly.
Frelinghuysen, wealthy scion of a New Jersey political dynasty, never faced a serious challenge until this year. He cruised to victory by 19 percentage points in 2016, in a district long considered a GOP bastion.
Yet President Donald Trump won the 11th by less than one percentage point.
Registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats by just 2 percent in this district while 40 percent of voters are unaffiliated with either party, according to SwingLeft.org.
Prominent political handicappers had tilted the race towards Sherrill. A pair of polls released last month showed single-digit leads around the sampling margin of error, despite a Sherrill warchest at least five times larger than Webber’s.
Sherrill campaigned on her military service and emphasized healthcare, building the Gateway tunnel, and reducing taxes. She hammered Webber for his pro-life views and his support for a Trump tax package that stings many New Jersey homeowners.
Webber trumpeted economic gains under Trump, while trying to tie Sherrill to Sen. Menendez, who was investigated on corruption charges.
President Trump hosted a Washington DC fundraiser for Webber, and Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway came to the District to campaign for the father of seven.
Vice President Joe Biden, former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and the director of Emily’s List came out for Sherrill. Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned with Sherrill in Morristown on Monday.
One of Sherrill’s TV ads showed her piloting a chopper over Greater Morristown.
She may become the envy of other lawmakers when it comes to beating Beltway traffic.
This story was updated to include Jay Webber comments.