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3 things to watch in New Jersey’s primaries Tuesday

Van Drew party switch fuels battles in two districts

Elected as a Democrat in 2018, Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP after opposing the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Elected as a Democrat in 2018, Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP after opposing the impeachment of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

New Jersey holds congressional primaries Tuesday, facing a raft of problems with its rapid shift to nearly all-mail elections, cut-throat contests in two competitive districts, and some challenges to incumbents generating buzz. 

Along with an alleged voter fraud scheme that led to four arrests in Paterson, state officials have been dealing with computer glitches, counting errors and misdelivered and destroyed ballots since the first round of local elections were held entirely by mail in May. Tuesday’s primaries aren’t expected to go any more smoothly. 

Every registered Republican and Democrat was mailed a ballot, while unaffiliated voters were sent applications. In-person polling sites will be open in every municipality, but other than people with disabilities who need to vote on a machine, voters who show up in person will be given provisional ballots. Clerks have reported a glut of ballot requests and caution that counting could be slow, which means close races are unlikely to be called soon. Ballots postmarked Tuesday and received by July 14 are valid, and only after those are counted will officials start to tally the provisional ballots.

Here are three things to watch as results come in:

Democrats battle to be Van Drew’s challenger

The marquee races will both be in South Jersey, where both parties see opportunities to flip a seat. 

In the 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City and several large but sparsely populated surrounding counties, five Democrats are vying for the chance to challenge Rep.  Jeff Van Drew, who flipped the seat to the Democratic column in 2018, then switched parties because he did not think President Donald Trump should be impeached.

The Democratic race appears to have come down to political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison and educator and mental health advocate Amy Kennedy, who married into the political dynasty.

Kennedy has benefited from the wealth, power and name recognition of her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (the youngest child of former Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy). But she’s the one running as the outsider. 

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That’s because Harrison, who has long been a voice in New Jersey politics, started shoring up support for a primary run against Van Drew before he defected to the GOP. 

Harrison has almost all of the state’s all-important power brokers in her corner, along with unions that wield influence over Atlantic City casino workers. And her name will have prime placement on the ballot thanks to the state’s practice of organizing its ballots around the list of candidates endorsed by their parties.

Kennedy, though, got the support of Atlantic City party boss Craig Calloway, a former city councilman who is known for his massive mail-in ballot operations — which might have even more impact this year than usual. Calloway has spent 42 months in prison for bribery and blackmail, which Harrison has pointed out.

Kennedy has portrayed herself as more progressive, attacking Harrison for an op-ed she wrote in 2011, before the so-called Bridgegate scandal, encouraging Republican Gov. Chris Christie to launch a presidential campaign against Barack Obama. Kennedy, who was also endorsed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, says she is running against the New Jersey political machine that is backing Harrison.

Harrison says her moderate positions are better suited to the district, which Trump carried by 5 points in 2016. She also supports marijuana legalization, a potential wedge issue in the state where legalizing marijuana sales will be on the ballot in November. 

Harrison has also dinged Kennedy for speaking fees and board memberships that have contributed to her family’s personal wealth, for self-funding much of her campaign and taking donations from companies affiliated with the Kennedy foundation that she says have contributed to the opioid addiction epidemic. As a counter, Harrison offers her personal story of struggling with staggering medical bills after her first husband was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and died after four years of treatment. 

Harrison self-funded $160,000 of the $415,000 she raised for her campaign and had spent all but $10,000 by June 17. She also had $210,000 in support from an outside group called the General Majority PAC, which has only supported her campaign.  

Kennedy, who self-funded $500,000, had $1.4 million in receipts and $236,000 left in the bank. She has also benefited from two single-candidate PACs that have spent a combined $128,000 supporting her and opposing Harrison. 

Van Drew, who has a nominal primary challenger, had raised $2.5 million and had $1.1 million left on June 17. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Republican.

Van Drew fallout spills into 3rd District

In the neighboring 3rd District, former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs and wealthy businessman David Richter are in a bitter contest for the nomination to challenge freshman Democrat Andy Kim in November. 

Richter had been running in the 2nd District until Van Drew’s party switch — and the Trump endorsement that came with it — convinced him to jump districts. 

Until then, Gibbs, national deputy director of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825’s business-labor cooperative, had appeared to have the nomination locked down with support from Republicans who liked her blue-collar bona fides and were eager to increase the number of women in their ranks. 

But Richter, the former CEO of Hill International, launched an early attack with an ad dredging up old arrests for shoplifting and alcohol and marijuana possession and comparing her to “Jersey Shore” cast member Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi. 

Gibbs, who said the arrests in her 20s helped make her a more responsible adult, condemned the ads and called Richter a carpetbagger who was trying to bully her out of the race. 

But Richter got the support of the Ocean County Republicans, a meaningful get because New Jersey’s bracketed ballots mean his name will appear below Trump’s in a large swath of the district. 

Gibbs has also struggled to match Richter’s fundraising. She had raised $284,000, which included $10,000 she self-funded, and had $82,000 left in the bank by June 17. 

Richter self-funded $600,000 of the $800,000 he raised and had $208,000 left. Gibbs, though, benefited from outside spending from her union, which spent $50,000 on digital advertising, and Jersey Real, a single-candidate PAC opposing Richter, which spent $212,000 on direct mail and media production and placement. 

Trump carried the district by 6 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the general election Lean Democratic.

Incumbents facing primary challengers

Several Democratic incumbents on the ballot Tuesday face primary challenges. While none of the challengers have the type of resources that would normally draw much attention, the social justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have injected new energy on the left that should have some Democratic incumbents paying attention. 

That seems to be the case for Rep. Albio Sires in the deep-blue 8th District

On paper, it doesn’t look like Sires has much to worry about. The seven-term incumbent won his 2018 race with 78 percent of the vote. And although he had only raised $353,000 and had $115,000 in the bank as of June 17, he looked well-financed compared to his primary opponents, lawyer Hector Oseguera and retired Navy SEAL Will Sheehan. Oseguera had raised only $62,000 and had $17,000 on hand, and Sheehan hadn’t raised enough to file with the Federal Election Commission. 

But Politico reported last week that the local Hudson County Democrats had released a batch of “questionable” opposition research on Oseguera, showing that he had registered as a Republican after he turned 18. That was followed by the rollout of a series of endorsements from New Jersey’s Democratic elite. Both data points showed that Sires was working to insulate himself. 

“Incumbents sure do look powerful until you really take it to them,” Oseguera told the Hudson County View.

“If you’re there on the issues and what matters most to the people, and you have a strong presence on the ground, that goes a much longer way than the traditional metrics of, well, how much do they have in the bank, and how long have they been in office.”

In the 5th District, which includes safe Democratic areas such as Hackensack but also the conservative counties in the state’s northwest corner, Democratic incumbent Josh Gottheimer has been a Republican target since he flipped the district in 2016 with 51 percent of the vote. He faces a primary challenge from Glen Rock council member and neuroscientist Arati Kreibich, who says he is too conservative for the district.

Gottheimer is one of the most prolific Democratic fundraisers in the House. He had $8 million on hand as of June 17, compared to Kreibich’s $144,000. But she had a list of powerful endorsements, including from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. She also had $106,000 in support from Indivisible Action, a progressive anti-Trump group. And she has been making regular appearances at Black Lives Matter protests.

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