Race for White House May Top Ballot, But NJ Primary Is All About the Lower House

Colleen O'Dea | June 5, 2012
With all eyes on the 9th, a handful of tough Congressional battles are being raged in local districts

While the presidential race may top the ballot in today’s primary, the most prominent race is happening in a small section of New Jersey — the 9th Congressional District, covering portions of Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties.

That’s where two seasoned veteran Democratic representatives, Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman, have been battling for the right to stay in the House. Most people believe the race is too close to call, although Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray is giving Pascrell the edge.

That’s largely due to the greater weight he is giving to former President Clinton’s trip to Paterson last Friday to stump for Pascrell, while Rothman had a much lower key visit with President Obama at the White House the same day.

“A photo op in the White House with the incumbent (or the endorsement of a surrogate) is no match for the full-throated support of a Democratic Party Goliath,” wrote Murray in his Monmouth Poll blog post yesterday.

Each contender is trying to paint himself as the more liberal, a nod to the makeup of the district — the voter registration is nearly 3-to-1 Democratic.

Both men joined Congress on the same January morning in 1997. Pascrell currently represents the 8th District, but redrawn district lines moved the 8th southeast and put him into the 9th. Rothman represents the current 9th but redistricting put him into the 5th. Rothman thought he had a better chance of defeating Pascrell in this election than in beating incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett, whose home is the 5th, in November.

While the Republicans who drew the district lines had been anticipating a Rothman defeat, they are benefitting at least as much, if not more, from the divisive intraparty fight that resulted instead.

The other hotly contested race in the state is in the 10th District, which is dominated by most of Newark and surrounding communities. The death of Rep. Donald M. Payne put this seat up for grabs and brought six Democrats out to vie for it. This is the hands down most Democratic district in the state — there are 208,000 registered Democrats and 21,000 registered Republicans with 179,000 unaffiliated — so the primary winner is likely to coast to victory in November.

Leading the pack is Donald Payne Jr., son of the former congressman and president of Newark’s council. Fellow Councilman Ronald Rice Jr., son of the state senator, is also on the ballot, as are state Sen. Nia Gill of Montclair and Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith. Political novices Cathy Wright and Dennis Flynn round out the field.

This is another race in which the frontrunners are trying to out-liberal one another. Payne says he’s the best person to continue his father’s legacy. Gill notes that New Jersey’s congressional delegation has no women. Rice has courted labor. Smith portrays himself as a regular guy. Flynn and Wright both are, with neither having held elected office before.

In addition to the race for a seat in the new congress, Payne Jr., Rice and Smith are also seeking to fill the remaining two months of Payne Sr.’s term in the currently configured 10th District in a special election. According to House rules, the seat remains vacant until November.

While the statewide U.S. Senate primary should technically be drawing the most attention, incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is unopposed and Republican frontrunner, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, might as well be.

Kyrillos, who has close times to Gov. Chris Christie, became the anointed party standard bearer early on so no other prominent Republicans got in the race. He has three opponents — David-Douglas Brown, Joe “Rudy” Rullo and Bader G. Qarmout — who have had a tough time getting attention. There was not even one GOP debate.

Qarmout got the endorsement of several local Tea Party groups, as well as the National Rifle Association. Rullo founded a solar energy firm and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the past. Brown is an inventor who tried to run for governor in 2009 but got booted from the ballot.

Kyrillos has been focused on Menendez since the campaign began and none of the pundits expects him to lose today.

Several incumbent congressmen have primary battles:

In the 1st District, which includes Camden, incumbent Rep. Rob Andrews faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Francis X. Tenaglio.

In the 2nd District, New Jersey’s southernmost, Mike Assad is seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo in the GOP primary. Three Democrats, Viola Hughes, Cassandra Shober and Gary Stein, are also battling for the right to challenge the winner in November.

In the 4th District, incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Smith faces a challenge from Terrence McGowan.

In the 5th, Garrett has two Republican opponents, Michael Cino and Bonnie Somer. Three Democrats, Jason Castle, Adam Gussen and Diane Sare, are also facing off for the right to challenge the GOP winner.

In the 7th, incumbent Republican Rep. Leonard Lance is taking seriously a challenge by David Larsen, who is portraying himself as more conservative than Lance.

In the 8th, Michael Shurin is trying to best Rep. Albio Sires in the Democratic primary.

There are also fights for the Republican nomination in the 6th and 9th districts.

Three unexpired state Assembly seats are also on the ballot and two of those have contested primaries — Democrats in the 16th, which includes parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties, and Republicans in the 26th, covering portions of Essex, Morris and Passaic.

Polls are open until 8 p.m. today.

Information on all the candidates and the races, as well as district maps, a link to find local polling places and other election information, is available from NJ Spotlight’s Voter Guide.