Snooki used as cudgel in South Jersey congressional race

Republican candidates for U.S. Congress in New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District David Richter and Kate Gibbs. (Richter, WHYY file photo/Gibbs, provided by the candidate)

Republican candidates for U.S. Congress in New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District David Richter and Kate Gibbs. (Richter, WHYY file photo/Gibbs, provided by the candidate)

A Republican candidate for a South Jersey congressional seat has released a contentious new ad comparing his GOP rival to “Jersey Shore” cast member Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.

David Richter, running in in a district that includes parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, earned a rebuke from Republican Party leaders for the attack on Kate Gibbs, who appears well-positioned to win the nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat Andy Kim.

The ad seizes on recent reporting by The Asbury Park Press that Gibbs, 33, faced charges for shoplifting as well as marijuana and alcohol possession in her 20s — offenses she acknowledged earlier this month and said helped make her a more independent and responsible woman.

“Our Jersey Shore values: family, community, hard work,” the ad begins, narrated by a male voice over soothing flute music. Then there’s a record scratch and a techno beats kick in.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Kate Gibbs? She’s more that Jersey Shore,” the narrator says as footage plays of Snooki face-planting on the beach, falling off a bicycle and getting in a fight. “Gibbs parties hard, and she’s got the criminal record to prove it.”

New Jersey’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, Ginny Haines and Bill Palatucci, made it clear they weren’t amused.

“Mr. Richter’s attempt to depict a genuine Jersey girl like Kate Gibbs as somehow similar to the New Yorkers who regularly insulted all New Jerseysans in the so-called ‘Jersey Shore’ TV show is shameful and compels us to speak out as party leaders,” they said in a statement. “Mr. Richter’s personal attacks on Kate only serves to embarrass himself, hurt the Republican Party and diminish our efforts to defeat Andy Kim this November.”

Candidates battling for key endorsement

As the national Democratic Party struggles to project unity while searching for a nominee to face President Donald Trump, Republicans in New Jersey are hoping to redeem themselves after a disastrous showing in the 2018 “blue wave” elections, when their congressional delegation shrunk from five members to one.

The GOP picked up one member when U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched from the Democratic to Republican Party last year, but they’re hoping for more. Kim, who defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur in 2018, is thought to be among the country’s most vulnerable incumbents

Richter’s new ad comes at a critical time in the primary contest. Gibbs, who served one term as Burlington County freeholder, has already received the endorsement of the Burlington County Republican Committee. That gives her favorable placement on the June 2 primary ballot beneath Trump and with the committee’s preferred candidate for U.S. Senate and other offices.

Should she win a similar endorsement in Ocean County, where most of the district’s Republicans reside, Richter would face a decidedly uphill battle for the nomination. The county party holds its convention on March 4, and Gibbs enters with the recommendation of the county party’s screening committee.

Richter’s attack may ultimately backfire as the party tries to empower more women and younger candidates to seek elected office.

Richter, 55, is the wealthy former CEO of Hill International and is susceptible to criticism in his own right as a district-shopper. The Willingboro native lived in Princeton before moving to Avalon last year to run against Van Drew in the 2nd District. But when Van Drew switched parties with Trump’s support, Richter announced he would instead run in the 3rd District.

Gibbs’ campaign spokesman, Chris Russell, alluded to that history in a response to Richter’s ad.

“Kate thought the ad was trashy, condescending, and desperate, a perfect microcosm of Richter’s losing, carpetbagging campaign,” he said. “There is a reason why David Richter isn’t receiving any Republican support in the district. Nasty and arrogant is a bad combination.”

Richter’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Shoplifting, marijuana charges

Gibbs works as a deputy director within the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825. When she entered the race in November, she highlighted her roots in South Jersey, where she was raised by a single mother and became the first in her family to graduate from college.

Earlier this month, The Asbury Park Press revealed she also had a history of run-ins with the law there. At age 20, she was charged with shoplifting for taking about $80 worth of clothes from a Kohl’s in Cherry Hill. She eventually pled guilty to a lesser offense and was barred from the department store.

Two years later, at 22, she was charged in Long Beach Township with possessing a small amount of marijuana and intent to use drug paraphernalia. The case was ultimately dismissed under a first-offender law, according to the Press.

At 28, she was charged with prohibited possession of alcohol on the beach in Sea Bright. She pleaded guilty and paid a $283 fine, the Press reported.

While attending American University in Washington, D.C, she was also sued by her landlord for unpaid rent on nine occasions between 2006 and 2008. She shared the apartment with a roommate and said she never knew about the lawsuits — the majority of which were dismissed — until notified by a reporter this month.

“As a young woman, I made some poor choices, trusted the wrong people, experimented with pot, and did some immature things,” she told the Press. “It’s embarrassing and I’m not proud of it, but I won’t run from it either. I own this. The mistakes I made then, helped me become who I am today: An independent, responsible, successful young woman who is running for Congress because we need more real, genuine people representing us in Washington.”

She received the recommendation of the county party’s screening committee after those comments.

The Ocean County Republican Party chairman said he was “not happy” about Gibbs’ offenses, but said they shouldn’t disqualify her from public service.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal