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Analysis: With Holt Retiring, New Jersey Could Elect Two Women to Congress

Greenstein is early frontrunner for Holt seat with other women candidates eyeing the race; Belgard has real shot to succeed Runyan

Rush Holt
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt

New Jersey has not elected a woman to Congress since 2000, but with Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard mounting a strong campaign in the tossup 3rd District and state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) the clear front-runner in a strong field of potential woman candidates to succeed retiring Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), it looks like the shutout will end this year.

“What is encouraging for women in politics is that there are three open seats this year, and women are going to be running in two of them with a real shot to win,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “In the 3rd District Aimee Belgard has pretty much cleared the Democratic field for a very winnable seat. She was the first one out of the gate, and this time party leaders didn’t tell her to wait her turn when it became an open seat.

“And in the 12th District, it’s not just Greenstein’s name that’s out there, but Shirley Turner and Bonnie Watson-Coleman and Paula Covello and others, which shows what a deep bench of women there is in Holt’s district,” Walsh said. ‘That’s a real sign of progress.”

Belgard is running in the most competitive district in the state based on party registration numbers, and one of only 17 congressional districts in the country that is represented by a Republican. Still, it was carried by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012. National political experts moved the district from “leaning Republican” to “tossup” after Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), a former Philadelphia Eagles football player, decided in December not to seek reelection.

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Meanwhile, Greenstein, who won four Assembly and Senate races in five years in the hotly contested 14th District, which spans Mercer and Middlesex counties in the heart of Holt’s safely Democratic district, wasted no time yesterday in jumping into the 12th District race, formally declaring her candidacy almost immediately after Holt announced he would retire after eight terms in Congress.

“I think I’m right for the district. I’m the only one who has represented both Mercer and Middlesex counties, and I have the largest footprint of any potential candidate in the number of towns I have represented,” Greenstein said last night. “And I really do think it is long past time that we had a woman in New Jersey’s congressional delegation.”

Greenstein’s potential opponents include Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), Assemblywomen Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), Linda Stender (D-Union), and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello.

But it was Greenstein that Emily’s List, the influential Washington, D.C.-based women’s political organization that is already working for Belgard, contacted yesterday as soon as her name surfaced as a candidate. “They called me and said they’re really excited and are working on trying to get me some early support,” Greenstein said.

In a Democratic primary where organization support is critical, Greenstein’s status as the only likely candidate from Middlesex County, which makes up 40 percent of the district, gives her a tremendous advantage and the likely party line. Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe would like to have a congressman from Middlesex, which is the second most populous county in the state, but has not had a home-grown congressman this century because Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a Monmouth County Democrat, has represented the Middlesex-dominated 6th District.

Greenstein also has represented a number of towns in Mercer County, which makes up another 40 percent of the district, although Hamilton, the largest Mercer municipality she represents, falls outside Holt’s congressional district.

Sticking With the Union

Nevertheless, Greenstein is the favorite legislator of the public employee unions that make up a large voting bloc in Holt’s district, particularly in Mercer County. Furthermore, the state AFL-CIO has worked hard in all of her campaigns, and she can also count on strong support from the private sector unions. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), her longtime running mate, has been the president of the Mercer-Burlington Building Trades Council since 2007 and he announced yesterday that he would run for Greenstein's Senate seat if she goes to Washington. That would give Mercer a second Senate seat to go along with Turner's as a consolation prize if Greenstein is the congressional nominee.

Greenstein, who said she expected to be able to make some announcements of support in the next few days, would have a clear advantage in a large field, particularly if more than one candidate from Mercer decided to run. That's a distinct possibility with Turner, Watson-Coleman, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) all signaling or acknowledging yesterday that they were considering the race.

With everything in flux on the day of Holt’s surprise announcement, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, made Greenstein “a slight favorite” in the race.

One of the complicating factors, he said, is the role that the Democratic organizations in Union and Somerset counties, each of which make up 10 percent of the district, will play in the race.

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