Post-Game, Pre-Game with Sherrill World’s Mollie Binotto

CHATHAM – Few towns symbolize the changing nature of Morris County politics than the borough and neighboring Chatham Township. Once solidly Republican, Democrats are now winning municipal elections in both towns and on Nov. 6, a majority of voters backed Democrat Mikie Sherrill in the 11th Congressional district.

So it was hardly shocking that Sherrill picked the borough for the first of what she called “coffee events.”  It was Wednesday afternoon, but close to 100 people pushed their way into the Drip coffee shop on Main Street to chat with the congresswoman-to-be.

Yana Kane-Esrig of nearby Madison wanted to talk about education, health care and the environment, but also about real “security,” which she suggested was protecting the nation from cyber attacks. Len Resto was there to press Sherrill on the need for the Gateway Tunnel.





In brief remarks. Sherrill pledged to listen closely and to act on public wishes when she gets to Washington on Jan. 3.

But it’s still hard to separate the future from what happened just last month – Sherrill’s victory in a district that still has more registered Republicans than Democrats.

“I think we ran the best race in the country,” Sherrill said, noting that New Jersey’s 11th District saw the biggest voter swing in the nation between the 2016 and 2018 congressional races. For the record, Sherrill beat Republican Jay Webber by about 47,000 votes. Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen won reelection in 2016 by about 64,000 votes. Talk about a staggering turnaround.

As Sherrill recounted her success, she asked the crowd to give a hand to Mollie Binotto,  her campaign manager, and her supporters promptly obliged. As important as they are, campaign managers are often oblivious to the public at large.

As Sherrill worked the crowd, Binotto talked about the campaign from a table in the back of the room.  Binotto is 33 and a native of western Pennsylvania. which is a well-known hotbed for intense sports fans. On that score, Binotto does not disappoint, noting that she roots for Pittsburgh’s three pro sports franchises – the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins.

Politically, she came to suburban New Jersey after working for Democrats in Alaska and Montana. It would be hard to find places in the United States more unlike New Jersey than those two states. Montana, for instance,  has 147,000 square-miles and only one representative in Congress. New Jersey has 8,700 square-miles and 12 seats in Congress.

Undaunted, Binotto said working in “red” states is valuable in that it trains you to connect with people who do not share your ideology. The key, she says, is to simply “look them in the eye” and try to agree on what you can. And ideology aside, Binotto says most people are looking for leadership.

When Binotto joined Sherrill’s campaign in the summer of 2017, she admits she didn’t know if the Democrat could really win,. After all, it was a Republican district represented by a man with one of the most famous political names in New Jersey political history. While she said Frelinghuysen would have been a “formidable” candidate, Binotto also saw an opening, saying of the incumbent, “He seemed to be a member of Congress who had lost his way in the Washington wilderness.”

But as the campaign began building its case against Frelinghuysen, something happened. In late January, he bowed out of the race.

What was Binotto’s “gut feeling” when she heard the news?  She admits to being “unsure” as to whether Frelinghuysen’s exit was good or bad for Sherrill. But after Jay Webber won a contested GOP primary, the strategy for the Sherrill camp crystallized. It was to get Webber’s record before the voters. Webber always has leaned “more right” than many New Jersey Republicans, but in an Assembly District (the 26th) where Democrats never mounted a serious challenge, it didn’t matter.

Now it did. And by capitalizing on Webber’s record – especially his “no” vote on an equal pay for equal work measure – Sherrill grabbed the coveted political middle.

Many asked Sherrill during the campaign why she didn’t talk more critically about Donald Trump. Binotto said polling showed Trump to be “underwater” in the district, but also that he was still more popular than other Republicans, including Frelinghuysen. So, the campaign left Trump alone.

Still, as Binotto explained, “Donald Trump … was always in the (political) conversation.” Clearly, voters energized to vote by anti-Trump sentiment didn’t need Sherrill to condemn the president every day to vote for her.

A recently-released post-election survey by the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee adds a broader perspective. It notes how congressional Democrats won women voters by 13 percent and more tellingly for the affluent and educated 11th District, college graduates by 16 percent. While this was a national survey, it’s clear that Republicans in the district have a serious problem if they’re losing college graduates by double-digits.

Then there was Sherrill herself. Binotto said that after meeting a lot of people in politics, “You know genuine people when you meet them, and she was one of them.”

Sherrill also displayed an amazing capacity to bring average people to her campaign. Routine campaign events often drew more than 100 people. Sure, supporters were invited, but still, it’s not easy to get 150 people to go somewhere on a Thursday morning.

There was no better example than the Saturday before the election when Sherrill. held a boisterous rally outside the New Vernon Post Office. This was a memorable event for a number of reasons. Cory Booker was there and one irritated resident, who I later found out was a former township committeeman, yelled at Sherrill supporters for blocking his entrance to the post office.

But for Binotto, the key thing was that about 200 people showed up on a chilly, overcast day.  She was expecting about 35.

“That was my tipping point,” Binotto said. “That was a sign that we connected with the community.”
A more convincing sign came three days later.

Now, as things move along, Sherrill was talking in the coffee shop about how the new Congress so represents America, noting that the Democratic freshmen class includes Hispanics, Native-Americans and Muslims. And speaking of red states, there also will be Democratic congressional representatives next year from Kansas and Oklahoma.

“I met them,” Sherrill said. “They aren’t unicorns.”

Neither anymore are Democrats in the 11th District.

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