Opinion: Why South Jersey Is the Place to Watch This Election Year

Carl Golden | March 11, 2020 | Opinion
On the agenda: strong intraparty friction in 2nd and 3rd District primaries, the Trump factor and implications for the ‘House of Norcross’
Carl Golden

Taken together, New Jersey’s 2nd and 3rd congressional districts cover all or portions of eight South Jersey counties and 146 municipalities but historically have been largely overlooked in election years by those in the more populous and media-rich north Jersey environment.

This year, though, may be the year when the tail wags the state’s political dog. This may be the year when the political cognoscenti pay closer attention rather than their usual glance southward out of the corner of their eye.

Both have highly competitive primary contests — Democrats in the 2nd and Republicans in the 3rd — and no matter the outcome will present equally competitive general election contests.

And, both districts arrived at this point largely through outside influences and pressures exerted by, among others, the president of the United States, a former governor of New Jersey, a longtime South Jersey political powerbroker, and the president of the New Jersey Senate.

When 2nd District Rep. Jeff Van Drew, with President Trump’s public embrace and enthusiastic support, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after refusing to support impeachment, Democrats spied an opening and an opportunity to regain the seat by coalescing behind Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor. She’d already announced her intention to challenge Van Drew in the Democratic primary and his departure seemingly cleared the field for her.

After Van Drew

Within 48 hours of Van Drew’s switch, the Democratic Party chairs in six counties pledged support to Harrison, along with powerbroker George Norcross and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

It was a quick strike by a formidable force designed to lock up the nomination quickly and scare off any potential challengers.

Unimpressed and undaunted by the effort to muscle any opposition aside, Amy Kennedy, wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy (son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy), announced her candidacy and quickly vaulted into contention.

Her securing the endorsement of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee gave her campaign a significant boost and largely offset the advantage gained from the six other county leaders allied with Harrison.

It’s become a proxy war now, pitting the Norcross organization against the more traditional party establishment. A Harrison victory would restore some of the political luster to the Norcross faction and repair the damage inflicted on him by the controversy over his alleged profiteering from tax incentives granted by the state’s Economic Development Authority.

Norcross: something to prove

Norcross’ reputation as the undisputed leader of South Jersey — the tough, savvy operative whose support can make or break candidates, who can deliver on his pledges — is on the line. He has something to prove and he’s gone all in, financially and organizationally, on Harrison’s behalf.

While a Kennedy victory may not result in the fall of the House of Norcross, it would leave a few cracks in the foundation.

More than mere geography connects the 3rd to the 2nd, however.

One of the Republican candidates in the primary not too long ago was the Republican candidate seeking the nomination to run against Van Drew back when Van Drew was a Democrat.

David Richter, who moved his residence to the 2nd District to run, abandoned his candidacy when Van Drew changed parties and was universally supported by the Republican establishment.

Richter was undeterred, though. He programmed the GPS in his car and relocated to the  3rd District in search of the nomination which, up to that point, seemed to be in the firm grasp of former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs.

Richter, moving fast

Richter, reportedly at the urging of former Gov. Chris Christie, shrugged off the carpetbagger accusation and went low early, airing commercials referencing Gibbs’ past brushes with the law and comparing her activities to those of one of the characters in the “Jersey Shore” television show.

His campaign also pulled off something of a coup by winning the Ocean County GOP’s endorsement, overriding its screen committee’s recommendation of Gibbs.

Richter believes he’ll be able to overcome whatever resentment has built up over his congressional district shopping spree and, while he will still require a roadmap and a GPS to navigate the district, he’s willing to dip into his personal bank account to purchase credibility and viability.

Democrat freshman Rep. Andy Kim won the seat in 2016, defeating a one-term incumbent Republican by 1% while Trump carried the district by 5% — numbers which suggest Kim is seriously vulnerable.

The Harrison v. Kennedy and the Richter v. Gibbs contests will severely test the organizational strength in the eight-county territory and, as is usual in primaries, victory will be determined by  money — who has more of it — and foot soldiers — whose army is larger.

Competition draws media attention like church steeples draw lightning and this year at least the 2,000-square-mile playing field runs from the Atlantic Ocean to Delaware Bay.

The South, it seems, may rise again. North Jersey take note.