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New Jersey’s machine takes a rare loss on primary day

Mail-in ballots threw a wrench into South Jersey’s Democratic machine in last week’s 2nd District primary

The Kennedy name was a factor in Tuesday’s primary win for Amy Kennedy — here with her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and family in 2019 —  as were a slew of mail-in ballots.
The Kennedy name was a factor in Tuesday’s primary win for Amy Kennedy — here with her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and family in 2019 — as were a slew of mail-in ballots. (Bennett Raglin/Getty Images file photo)

ANALYSIS — If there’s a functioning political machine left in the United States, it’s the one run by Democrats in South Jersey. That machine definitely threw a rod in Tuesday’s primary, however.

The organization-backed candidate in most of the sprawling, eight-county 2nd District, political scientist Brigid Callahan Harrison, lost to teacher Amy Kennedy in the race to take on Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who won the seat as a Democrat two years ago and then flipped to the GOP after opposing President Donald Trump’s impeachment in December.

Longtime observers struggled to remember a time a candidate lost a primary when he or she had the all-out support of the organization, which is controlled by wealthy insurance executive George Norcross, the brother of 1st District Rep. and someday Senate candidate Donald Norcross.

The Kennedy name was surely a factor: Amy Kennedy is married to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the son of former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. She also had the support of Atlantic City’s party leader and was endorsed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

But what really gummed up the machine’s gears was the mid-May, coronavirus-driven decision by Murphy to mail every registered Democrat and Republican a ballot, whether they asked for one or not.

It’s worth considering as Trump rails against vote-by-mail as a scheme to steal his reelection that both parties lose some of the control on the levers of power they’ve gotten used to when voting becomes easier, especially for people who are only casually engaged or even disengaged from politics.

Votes postmarked as late as 8 p.m. primary day that arrive by the following Tuesday are valid, so New Jersey tallies won’t be final for a while. But if estimates by The Associated Press about the overall number cast are accurate, all signs point to a surge in turnout. In 2018, there were about 421,000 votes cast in the Democratic primary that nominated Sen. Bob Menendez. As of Thursday, more than 572,000 votes had been counted in Sen. Cory Booker’s primary and the AP estimates that’s 52 percent of the total cast.

In the 2nd District two years ago, Democrat Van Drew got just under 17,000 of the nearly 30,000 primary votes cast. By Thursday, Kennedy had more than 30,000 of the nearly 48,302 votes counted, which the AP estimated was 68 percent of the total cast.

It’s no secret that when campaigns talk about turnout, they don’t mean turning out as many people as possible. They mean turning out the people they believe will support them. If other people can’t be bothered, or don’t even know there’s a primary, that’s fine with a machine.

Voting by mail is not new in New Jersey. For more than a decade, the state has allowed people to request mail-in ballots without an excuse, and voters can even check a box asking that ballots be mailed automatically for every future election. Organizations have worked to encourage reliable Democratic supporters to do just that.

“The Camden machine has been at the forefront of cranking out vote-by-mail numbers for years,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “They were some of the earliest innovators. They understood the potential of it. But when it became universal, they lost control of their ability to pick and choose who they knew was a supportive vote versus who they weren’t sure about.”

With the presidential nomination settled months ago, a rescheduled congressional primary in July, even for a competitive seat, might be expected to be a low-turnout affair where the backing of a strong organization would pay off the most.

Normal get-out-the-vote operations involve hundreds of volunteers converging in shopping center parking lots to be loaded into vans to canvass targeted neighborhoods or staff phone banks in union halls. Vote-by-mail takes place over the course of weeks, and the organization can keep track of which ballots have been returned and which haven’t, so they know whom to pester.

But with New Jersey only slowly emerging from pandemic lockdown, and even backtracking on some reopening because infections have begun to rise again, the traditional get-out-the-vote playbook was thrown out. Not knowing who would vote, campaigns had to use TV and mass mailings, both of which cost money. A super PAC connected to Norcross put $500,000 into the race, but Kennedy had her own connections and personal wealth and spent more.

New Jersey also lets candidates bracket together on the ballot, so in most parts of the district, Harrison had “the line,” meaning her name appeared beside or below Booker’s, followed by organization-backed candidates for county and local office.

Having the line pays off when a disinterested voter goes into the booth and pushes all the buttons in a particular row or column.

“But there’s something fundamentally different about sitting at the kitchen table, opening the ballot and digesting it, versus having a line of people waiting to vote after you, and you want to get in and out of the booth,” Rasmussen said.

It’s unclear if the state will send everyone a ballot again in November, or whether the machine will adjust to a different universe and get its game back. Rasmussen noted that this was one race with no incumbent, that Kennedy excelled as a first-time candidate, and in other parts of the state on Tuesday the power of the line proved its value. Democratic Rep. Albio Sires was seen as vulnerable to a more progressive challenger, for example, but was declared the winner Tuesday night and had 74 percent of the vote with an estimated 37 percent counted on Thursday.

But Harrison said the campaign had to shift gears in May when it was clear everyone would get a ballot.

“The expanded electorate increased the importance of money in the election and introduced a level of uncertainty in terms of who our target audience was,” she said. That may have given Kennedy an edge.

“Obviously, it’s easier to address with more money and name recognition that comes from a political dynasty,” she said.

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