Republicans Eye Vulnerable Seats in New Jersey’s Primary

With voting conducted almost entirely via the mail, Republicans hope the New Jersey primary will help them push back against 2018’s Blue Wave. 

A child plays at Liberty State Park, with the Statue of Liberty stands in the background, in Jersey City on May 2, after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy reopened parks as part of his loosening of restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Nick Rummell)

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Two years after the Blue Wave swept through New Jersey in 2018, Garden State Republicans now hope to recapture some of the seats they lost in the House as voters go to the polls Tuesday. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has added wrinkles to the process, however, and could keep voters in the dark on who won until the end of the month. Earlier this year, Governor Phil Murphy announced the election originally scheduled for May 12 would be held primarily by mail-in ballot, with a handful of polling places offering provisional ballots.

Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday, but they may be received by election officials for up to a week afterward.

“The odds are very unlikely that Wednesday morning we will have results,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “A candidate that seems to be very far behind on election night might hold back from conceding. They will likely want to see all the votes counted.” 

Races look tighter than they did at the same point in 2018. According to an April poll by Monmouth University, 50% of voters said they would likely back their Democratic candidate versus 38% leaning to supporting their Republican candidate. The margin is closer than it was in April 2018.

“In New Jersey, we’ve never had a primary where the entire election was going to be conducted via the mail,” said Republican consultant Chris Russell of Checkmate Strategies. “Whoever picked this year to run picked a heck of a year.”

The most closely watched of the races is the 2nd District, where Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew is sure to coast past the primaries to face off against members of his former party in November.

Van Drew, a conservative member of the Democrats, switched parties last year after rebuking his colleagues’ impeachment of the president. After joining the GOP, Van Drew declared his “undying support” for President Trump.

The switch allowed Democrats to try to usher in a candidate more in line with the party’s views. After she slammed Van Drew in an op-ed on his vote against Trump’s impeachment, Democratic stalwart Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, was initially a shoo-in for the nomination.

“New Jersey’s party system is set up in such a way to make it almost impossible for a progressive to win without support,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Our system is stacked against challengers.”

Harrison now faces serious competition, however, from Amy Kennedy, the wife of Rhode Island’s U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy. A former public school teacher and mental health advocate, Kennedy has a harder path to the nomination, but she has made some in-roads. 

Drawing national attention, Harrison has nabbed endorsements from both of the state’s U.S. senators, as well as New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney. But Kennedy has a slew of high-profile endorsements of her own, from U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to Governor Phil Murphy. 

“It’s an extension of the Democratic civil war going on in the state,” said Russell, citing political in-fighting between Sweeney and Murphy. “You have the makings of an exciting race.”

While Van Drew faces former Trump administration official Bob Patterson —who has called out Van Drew for previously voting against the president more than 90% of the time — the nomination is almost certainly his.

In 2012, Patterson had to resign from working for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett after it was revealed he believed women should stay at home and raise children, that birth control weakened women’s attraction to men, and that “semen-exposed” women have better concentration and cognitive skills. He has reportedly condemned contraception, gay marriage, abortion, day care and no-fault divorce.

The 2nd District is one of two districts in New Jersey that had voted twice for President Obama and then switched to vote for President Trump in 2016. As a conservative Democrat, Van Drew had been considered unbeatable, but his chances for re-election are a bit slimmer now that he runs as a Republican.

“Political parties matter in New Jersey,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, noting that progressive upstarts don’t often stand a chance in landing nominations. “New Jersey is a very blue state, but that doesn’t mean it is a progressive state. We are a centrist state.”

With the president’s backing, however, Van Drew will almost certainly be on the ballot in November, experts say. “The minute Trump showed up and gave him his blessing he became the nominee,” Hale said.

An even tighter race appears to be in the 3rd District, where Democrat Andy Kim — a Rhodes scholar and former Obama administration official who eked by his opponent to win in 2018 — will face one of two challengers.

Kate Gibbs, a former Burlington County freeholder, represents a different tack for Republicans. Fresh-faced and with ties to unions, she faces David Richter, the CEO of a publicly traded construction firm.

Gibbs has called Richter a “carpetbagger” who initially was going to run in the 2nd district against Van Drew.

But Richter has fired back against Gibbs for her criminal background. In 2006 she was charged with shoplifting from a Kohl’s, and she also has faced charges for marijuana possession and drinking on a beach. Gibbs has chalked up the incidents to “bad choices as a college kid,” but an advertisement by Richter likens her to Snooki and notes she was sued nine times for not paying her bills.

Russell, who is working for Gibbs’ campaign and also worked for Kim’s Republican opponent in 2018, said the district leans red despite its blue representation. “Kim won by just a point, so it shows the district really wants to be Republican,” he said.

Russell called Richter “a district shopper extraordinaire” who has registered in four districts, run in three, and lives somewhere altogether. “For a Republican Party in New Jersey, we have to start nominating candidates that don’t look alike, sound alike, are kind of run of the mill,” he said. 

Another seat Republicans hope to flip is in the 7th District, which Tom Malinowski won from Leonard Lance two years ago. While several Republicans vie for the nomination, Tom Kean Jr. is the presumptive nominee.

Kean, the minority leader in the state Senate, has a long political pedigree. His father, Tom Kean Sr., served as the 48th governor of New Jersey, and Kean is descended from Thomas Dudley, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

“That district is a swing district. Leonard Lance was the perfect Republican for that district because he was a Republican with manners,” Hale said. “But Trump is so wildly unpopular in that district because he doesn’t have manners.”

Ironically, the district houses Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, but many in the district have soured on the president, Murray said. “Suburban college-educated women turned against Trump, and now they are constantly visually reminded of him” with the golf course, he said. 

Weingart said there is precedent, however, for an upstart Democrat narrowly winning and holding on in a red-tinted district against a popular, well-known Republican legislator. He noted that Rush Holt Jr. flipped his seat, ran against a well-respected state senator, and then represented a traditionally conservative district until 2016. 

According to an April poll by FiveThirtyEight, Kean edges Malinowski among voters, 39% to 38%.

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