Questions Remain About Whether Murphy Will Delay Primary, Use Mail-in Balloting

Governor is expected to decide soon whether to change June 2 election date; candidates are battling already
Amy Kennedy, left, and Brigid Harrison are already battling hard for the Democratic Party nomination to run in the 2nd Congressional District.

This year’s primary election for seats representing New Jersey in Congress will feature contests that involve either one or both of the major parties in nearly all districts as well as the battle for Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s seat.

What isn’t known now is how and when the primary, typically held on the first Tuesday in June, will take place. State officials are evaluating the situation, given the current state of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19, and are expected to make a decision soon. So far, Gov. Phil Murphy has declined to change the date of the primary, now scheduled for June 2, but he could choose to delay the vote or have it conducted entirely by mail if he thinks the disease will still be a threat in two months.

Murphy already postponed some local and school board elections until May 12 and ordered that all elections by that date be conducted completely by mail-in balloting. Some states, including Pennsylvania and Connecticut, have postponed their primaries until June 2. That traditionally had been the last primary date for the presidential election, which is also this year. But other states have pushed their voting even further back — Louisiana until June 20, for instance, and New York and Kentucky until June 23.

It is unclear whether New Jersey’s vote will matter in this year’s presidential nominating process. President Donald Trump is unopposed on the Republican side and while both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are on the Democratic ballot, it would be difficult for Sanders to overcome Biden’s delegate lead. New Jerseyans seeking to go to the parties’ conventions, currently scheduled for over the summer, also filed yesterday.

Booker is back

Regardless of when the election is held, Monday was the deadline to file to run as a Democrat or Republican in the primary. As of 8:45 p.m., the state Division of Elections reported that 55 candidates had filed for the state’s dozen seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and seven are running for Senate, with Cory Booker pivoting back to seeking re-election to a second term after dropping out of the Democratic presidential contest in mid-January.

This year’s filings were complicated by COVID-19. It prompted some county parties to cancel their conventions and vote virtually to endorse candidates. Murphy had changed the filing process for candidates, creating an online portal to file petition signatures and other documents so that candidates would not have to collect signatures in person during the state of emergency. Still, some candidates filed paperwork in person and at the eleventh hour. Further complicating the process of reporting the filings was the fact that many division staff are working from home.

While contests abound statewide, the most hotly contested ones are in the neighboring 2nd and 3rd Districts in South Jersey.

“Those are the most interesting ones,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “Even though there might be a primary, nothing else seems particularly competitive.”

Van Drew versus…?

In the sprawling 2nd District, which encompasses Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties and parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean, candidates in both parties lined up to take on freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who won his seat in the New Jersey blue wave of 2018, then switched parties last December after refusing to vote to impeach Trump.

Trump held a rally in Wildwood with Van Drew two months ago, and pundits say that should be more than enough for him to best GOP primary opponents. But he could be vulnerable in November to a Democratic opponent in this purple district.

Seven Democrats had announced early plans to run for the nomination in the district, but that field narrowed to five as of last night.  Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University professor, are considered the frontrunners, and the battle between them has already turned ugly.

Kennedy backers complained that Ocean County’s Democratic party on Sunday cancelled a vote on endorsing a candidate in the 2nd District through a virtual convention but still made endorsements in the 3rd and 4th Districts, which also include portions of the county.

“It is likely that Amy Kennedy was going to win in Ocean, just like she did in Atlantic,” said Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey Working Families, who has opposed South Jersey power boss George Norcross for several years. Harrison has received the endorsement of state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and a number of other South Jersey Democrats affiliated with Norcross.

Wrangling over endorsements

A year ago, before joining Working Families, Altman had called for an end to county party endorsements along with other grassroots organizers. But she said in this case, the endorsement should have been made because committee members were denied the right to vote just hours before it was scheduled to take place and because the party still endorsed candidates in other races.

“It was a clumsy and clear attempt to rig the primary election,” Altman said. “This move is the latest in a long string of attacks against our democratic process in South Jersey by a political machine afraid of losing more power in the upcoming election.”

But Harrison campaign adviser Matthew Frankel said his candidate was going to win and criticized the Kennedy camp for its complaints.

“We see that when Amy loses the party line — as she did in a fair vote in Cumberland County in February — she claims the process is ‘rigged,’ but when an open primary is announced, as Ocean County communicated on Sunday, she flip-flops and calls that ‘rigged’ as well,” Frankel said. “To be clear, we were not thrilled with the Ocean County decision either. We were poised to win it. The difference is that we accepted the decision of the Democrats in Ocean County leaders simply because it is the right thing to do.”

Dworkin said the lack of an endorsement in Ocean County may not make that much of a difference in the long run, particularly since Harrison has more backing among machine politicians.

“These are the games that people are playing,” he said of the Ocean Democratic party’s non-endorsement. “I don’t think the endorsement matters as much as who’s making the phone calls and dragging people to the polls.”

Another major contest

The other major contest is among Republicans in the neighboring 3rd District, covering parts of Burlington and Ocean counties. Democrat Andy Kim unseated a Republican in a nail-biter in 2018, and he is unopposed in the primary. Four Republicans are vying for the chance to retake that district, with the frontrunners here also locked in a contentious battle. David Richter, former CEO of a construction management company, lives in the 2nd District but decided to run in the 3rd instead after Van Drew switched to the GOP. And former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs has faced additional scrutiny after revelations about her record of past arrests for municipal offenses that included shoplifting and marijuana possession.

The only two districts without at least one primary contest were the 1st based in Camden County and the 11th in north Jersey, both represented by Democrats. There are an equal number of red contests as there are blue. Democrats hold 10 of the 12 seats, and Republicans are itching to try to regain at least some of the three seats that Democrats flipped two years ago and still occupy. The midterm primaries two years ago were also hotly contested, but four more candidates filed for seats this year than in 2018.

In addition to the federal races, two unexpired state legislative seats — both in Morris County’s 25th District — are on the ballot. Neither the Senate nor the Assembly seats has a primary contest thus far.