New Jersey is holding a number of contentious Democratic primary elections Tuesday that could have national implications.
Three key House races could test the strength of New Jersey’s Democratic machine, one of the most powerful in the country, as it reckons with a revolt from reformers backed by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D).
The elections also give progressive insurgents an opportunity to prove their mettle in parts of the state where the left has had little success to date, including swing-voting suburbs.
NJ-2: The Machine Strikes Back
When then-Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) announced that he would retire from southern New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District in November 2017, it didn’t take long for state and national Democrats to coalesce behind then-state Sen. Jeff Van Drew. Van Drew, a Cape May County dentist on the far right edge of the Democratic Party, was a loyal member of the South Jersey machine ― a network of lawmakers, labor unions, lobbyists and business people under the influence of insurance executive George Norcross III.
After winning the open seat in 2018, Van Drew came under fire from local Democrats for his refusal to get behind the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. One of those angry constituents was Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison, who began musing about a primary challenge in November 2019. Van Drew wouldn’t give her the chance: A few weeks later, he announced that he was becoming a Republican.
Now Harrison has the backing of some of the same influential Garden State players who anointed Van Drew in 2018. Norcross has not officially endorsed her, but state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a childhood friend and staunch political ally of Norcross’, has given Harrison his blessing. And a super PAC tied to Norcross has spent more than $270,000 on Harrison’s behalf. The support of machine-backed county parties helped secure Harrison preferential real estate at the top of the ballot alongside party incumbents.
“People here need hope, but they need more than hope ― they need results.”
Harrison, who was also endorsed by Democratic New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez and the majority of the state’s labor unions, is running on a platform ― a moderate one by national standards ― of using federal power to improve South Jersey’s regional economy. Given its dependence on the tourism and gambling industries in Atlantic City, New Jersey’s 2nd District — an impoverished one that also comprises the state’s largely rural southern tip — has been especially hard hit by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. Harrison is gunning for a seat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the hopes of helping finance an extension of the New Jersey Transit Corp.’s commuter train line farther south along the state’s beach-covered coast.
“There is a strong cohort of people in this district who feel left behind,” said Harrison, noting that the district’s residents voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump. “People here need hope, but they need more than hope ― they need results.”
But for the coalition of progressives backing Harrison’s well-funded rival, Amy Kennedy ― a schoolteacher married to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) ― the election is primarily about crippling the South Jersey machine. The ways in which Kennedy is to Harrison’s left on policy are hard to spot, but Kennedy is more critical of the state’s corporate tax break program, which gave more than $1 billion in incentives to Norcross’ businesses, charities and allies. (Harrison, by contrast, downplayed the significance of the incentive money going to people tied to Norcross in a May 2019 Op-Ed.)
That point of contrast is a key reason why the progressive New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Murphy and two left-leaning labor unions ― the New Jersey Education Association and the Communication Workers of America ― have gotten behind Kennedy’s bid. Norcross’ network has bitterly fought Murphy’s effort to raise taxes on the state’s millionaires, as well as a task force Murphy convened to review the state’s corruption-ridden corporate tax incentive program.
Kennedy’s support for reforming New Jersey’s corporate tax incentives program is a window into how she would advocate for working people in Congress, according to Sue Altman, state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
“Nationally, we see that is a huge issue,” she said. “What we see happen with COVID relief is Republicans are taking care of corporations and leaving families and workers out to dry.”
The challenge for Kennedy, who is campaigning as an heir to the Kennedy family legacy, is that she is beset by controversies of her own, springing from her husband’s wealth and work and an alliance she made to counteract the power of the Norcross machine.
Patrick Kennedy, who has been open about his battle to overcome alcohol and drug addiction, founded the nonprofit Kennedy Forum to promote mental health spending and addiction treatment. The nonprofit is sponsored by a number of major pharmaceutical and insurance companies and their trade groups. At the same time, Kennedy made more than $1 million in compensation from his seats on the boards of a number of health care companies marketing opioid addiction treatments, all while he advocated for their shared priorities in Congress. Amy Kennedy herself picked up a seat on the advisory board of the addiction rehabilitation company InteraXon.
“I am committed to addressing the growing mental health crisis in our nation and am willing to work with the people and organizations that support this mission.”
Asked to address concerns about her and her husband’s work for for-profit health care companies, Kennedy said it was a necessary way to break down “partisan barriers” over funding mental health and drug addiction treatment programs. “I am committed to addressing the growing mental health crisis in our nation and am willing to work with the people and organizations that support this mission,” she said.
In addition, Patrick Kennedy recently joined the board of Wellpath, a company that provides health care services in for-profit prisons; the company’s executives have given $10,000 to Amy Kennedy’s campaign. The former congressman also contributed $500,000 to a super PAC supporting his wife’s bid.
Amy Kennedy’s campaign manager, Josh Roesch, called efforts by her opponents to highlight the donations from Wellpath a “vicious and personal attack.” He noted that she has foresworn corporate PAC money, winning the endorsement of the campaign finance reform group End Citizens United PAC.
What’s more, former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway’s endorsement of Kennedy has attracted scrutiny. Callaway, who runs a smaller patronage machine through the Atlantic County Democratic Party, spent almost three years in federal prison for accepting bribes and extorting a political rival. At the end of June, it emerged that he had signed his name on two separate mail-in ballots, prompting an investigation by local authorities. He insisted that the double-vote was a mistake.
Kennedy has, to this point, refused to say whether she has formed any kind of financial relationship with Callaway; her campaign would not answer HuffPost’s question about it directly. Roesch argued instead that the entire line of questioning, promoted by Harrison, uses “racist, dog-whistle tactics.” (Callaway is Black.)
Given the criticism of both Kennedy and Harrison — who are also both white — there could be a natural opening for Will Cunningham, an openly gay, Black attorney, to emerge as the alternative. Cunningham, who rose from poverty to work as an aide to Booker and as a senior investigator for the late-Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), is running as an unabashed progressive in the mold of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He supports Medicare for All, tuition-free college and divestment of police budgets in favor of greater social spending.
But while Cunningham has won the support of Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a public policy expert and the former congressman’s widow, he has failed to attract the attention of major progressive groups or the Congressional Black Caucus. That’s partly because of Cunningham’s weak showing in the 2018 primary election, as well as his apparent failure to adequately court progressive stakeholders. Altman of New Jersey Working Families Alliance could not recall hearing from him prior to the group’s endorsement of Kennedy.
Kennedy is “more progressive than Brigid Harrison and she can win,” Altman said.
NJ-5: Taking On One Of The Left’s Favorite Villains
At the opposite end of the state, in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, conservative Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer faces a spirited, though underfunded, challenge from Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist and Glen Rock town councilwoman.
Gottheimer, a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, unseated conservative Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in 2016 and won reelection the following cycle by almost three times his 2016 margin.
New Jersey’s 5th District is gerrymandered to favor Republicans, combining affluent, middle-of-the-road suburbs outside New York City with solidly Republican rural counties in the state’s northwest corner.
Given the district’s status as a recently recaptured swing seat, Gottheimer, a former Microsoft executive and speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, seemed to many observers like the most liberal representative the district is capable of electing.
But in line with national trends since Trump’s election, the suburban portion of the district has grown steadily more progressive.
Many of the suburbanites who have gotten involved in anti-Trump resistance groups have been disappointed in Gottheimer’s relatively cooperative relationship with the president and his status as a ringleader of House Democrats’ moderate and conservative members. In particular, Gottheimer made a name for himself as a proponent of hawkish foreign policy and a defender of the Wall Street banks that employ some of his constituents. He refused to sign on to a resolution calling on Trump to seek congressional authorization before striking Iran.
When he is not using his perch on the Financial Services Committee to lavish praise on the country’s most powerful financial executives, he’s appealing to the Federal Reserve to allow more predatory lenders into one of the central bank’s emergency bailout programs. (This cycle alone, Gottheimer raised more than $875,000 from the securities and investment industry, making him the largest recipient of financial sector cash in the House.)
These are not mere stances for Gottheimer. He organized the Problem Solvers Caucus as a bloc capable of exercising veto power over legislation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wanted to advance. In June 2019, Gottheimer used that power to prevent the House from passing its own border funding bill with tougher humanitarian conditions on enforcement funding aimed at managing a sudden influx of asylum seekers.
Kreibich, who immigrated to the U.S. from India as a child, has run as a staunch, pro-Medicare for All progressive of the kind normally found in more urban seats. But she told HuffPost when she announced her candidacy in July 2019 that it was Gottheimer’s derailment of House efforts to safeguard the well-being of undocumented immigrants, particularly children, that inspired her run. “Not only did he not stand up for the children in cages, for the humanitarian crisis that’s happening at the border ― he actively worked against the party on this,” she said.
Kreibich has hit Gottheimer from all angles, blasting him in videos for supporting a constitutional balanced budget amendment that would effectively force Social Security to spend down its surplus to cover gaps in the rest of the federal budget and for governing as “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” Kreibich even created an attack website alleging that Gottheimer would be more at home in the GOP.
“Progressives have a chance to replace Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat with a progressive woman of color who is a scientist during a pandemic.”
Kreibich has been picking up momentum in recent weeks, winning the endorsements of Pressley, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and the Sunrise Movement. They join the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and Indivisible as influential backers of her bid.
But Kreibich’s campaign has stopped short of generating quite the level of national attention inspired by Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th Congressional District. Though Pressley has endorsed Kreibich, Ocasio-Cortez has tellingly stayed out of the race. (Justice Democrats, which recruited Bowman, limits its support for primary challenges to solid blue districts where it cannot be accused of jeopardizing Democratic control in the general election.)
And it’s unclear whether Kreibich has the resources to compete with Gottheimer, particularly on TV. As of mid-June, Gottheimer had spent more than $850,000 and still had $8.5 million in cash on hand, while Kreibich had spent more than $320,000 and had just shy of $145,000 left over. Kreibich’s campaign decided not to spend on TV, but a super PAC created by Indivisible has spent more than $126,000 on TV ads supporting her.
Still, an upset win against Gottheimer would demonstrate the left’s influence far outside of its traditional strongholds and shift the balance of power in the House Democratic Caucus in a significantly more progressive direction.
“Progressives have a chance to replace Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat with a progressive woman of color who is a scientist during a pandemic … in a state that’s trending blue,” Altman said.
NJ-8: A New Generation Challenges The Old Guard
It is hard to get worked up one way or another about Rep. Albio Sires, who has represented racially diverse and working-class urban parts of northeast New Jersey since 2006. Sires, a mainstream Democrat, is not a member of any ideological caucus, choosing not to challenge party leadership either from the right or the left.
But Sires, an immigrant from Cuba and former mayor of West New York, is part of a local political machine that local progressives believe has stymied bolder policy changes, as well as the growth of younger leadership more in line with the district’s changing demographic makeup. New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District, which includes the historically heavily Cuban American hub of Union City, is increasingly populated by immigrants from Caribbean and Central American countries.
Hector Oseguera, an attorney and anti-money laundering specialist descended from the latter group of immigrants, is challenging Sires. Oseguera, who volunteered for Sanders in 2016 and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, is running as a progressive populist committed to eradicating “the injustices imposed by an economy rigged against working-class people.” Unlike Sires, Oseguera would fit in more with the “Squad,” the nickname for the group of outspoken progressive freshman lawmakers that includes Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
Oseguera is also part of a slate of progressive local candidates running against a particularly entrenched corner of New Jersey’s famously clannish machine politics. Through a combination of energetic organizing and a bit of luck, Oseguera’s slate will occupy the coveted Column A spot on the ballot in Hudson and Union counties, where most of the district’s residents live, The Intercept reported in May. Many voters instinctively vote Column A, since it is normally real estate reserved for machine candidates.
Oseguera’s odds of victory appear slim. The Intercept’s look at the race is one of the rare bits of national coverage of the primary in New Jersey’s 8th District. And Sires, himself not a prodigious fundraiser, has outspent the challenger by a 10-to-1 margin.
In late June, though, Oseguera picked up the influential endorsement of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance. (In addition to Kennedy, Kreibich and Oseguera, the group is backing the reelection of Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman in New Jersey’s 12th District.)
“In a deep-blue district like the 8th, you have a guy assuming that he was going to be able to sit in that seat for as long as he wants it,” Altman said. “But times are changing in the country. Times are changing in New Jersey.”