NJ Primary Elections 2020: A Few Fiery Contests to Watch in a Year Like No Other

A few heated contests have turned heads, but what most observers are watching is voter turnout amid a pandemic and with voting mostly by mail
Credit: (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Most voters are expected to vote by mail in New Jersey’s primary elections. Chet Harhut of the Allegheny County Division of Elections, wheeled mail-in ballots on May 27 for the June 2 Pennsylvania primary, the inaugural use of newly legalized mail-in ballots in that state.

Tuesday is primary day in New Jersey and this year’s elections, being conducted a month late and primarily by mail, are like no other in state history.

While a presidential election usually attracts high interest, it’s unclear how focused people are on these primary races given the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. But in parts of the state, there have been some high-profile campaigns and some Jersey-style mudslinging.

The Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are all but locked up, but there are contests for both parties’ nominees for U.S. Senate and for one or both parties in 10 of the state’s 12 congressional districts.

Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said the Democratic Party, in particular, is seeing a number of challenges in blue districts where incumbents normally would be considered safe with individuals inspired by the success of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who defeated a 10-term New York incumbent in the 2018 primary.

“Progressives are trying to pull AOCs in a number of New Jersey house races,’ Hale said. “The problem is that if you want to emulate AOC, you have to have her media skills and none of these challengers do. The only reason why progressive challengers might have a shot is because vote-by-mail favors young, even first-time voters who vote their ideals. I just don’t think there are enough of them.”

The strongest of these progressive challengers is probably in the 5th District in the north and west of the state. There, organized and vocal progressive Democrats are backing Arati Kreibich, a medical researcher and neuroscientist, in her attempt to unseat two-term Rep. Josh Gottheimer, judged the second most conservative Democrat in the House by the govtrack website.

Progressive push against Gottheimer

An ad Kreibich tweeted last week features supporter Susan Steinberg of Mahwah summing up progressives’ feelings about Gottheimer, whom they helped put in office in 2016 despite Donald Trump’s beating Hillary Clinton in that district. In it, Steinberg says she went to a “Cup of Joe with Josh” forum and asked him questions about votes in support of Trump policies. She said Gottheimer told her, “If you don’t like the way I vote, don’t vote for me,” according to Steinberg.

“So I’m taking my congressman’s advice,” she says. “I’m voting for Dr. Arati Kreibich. Her beliefs are more in line with what I believe. I believe she will be a true Democrat … So join me, take Congressman Gottheimer’s advice. If you don’t like the way he votes, don’t vote for him. Vote for Dr. Arati Kreibich.”

Arati Kreibich is challenging Rep. Josh Gottheimer in the 5th District Democratic primary contest.

As of June 17, Kreibich had raised close to $475,000 and still had $145,000 in the bank, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. But Gottheimer is one of the top 20 House fundraisers in the nation and reported $8.5 million on hand.

Gottheimer is spending some of that money on television ads that began airing last week. He also touts endorsements from the Democratic committees in the four counties that are part of the district, elected officials, unions and other organizations on his campaign website.

It has long been held that candidates who get the so-called party line in primaries in New Jersey are likely to win because typically the party faithful make up the majority of those voting in primaries. A report released earlier this week went further, stating that even designing a ballot that puts all endorsed candidates in the same line provides an advantage.

So, while eight of the state’s dozen incumbents have challengers — six, including Gottheimer, are Democrats with opposition from the left — the odds of them losing are slim.

Closer battles are being fought in two South Jersey districts.

Trying to get to Van Drew

The 2nd Congressional District is the state’s largest geographically, encompassing all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties, and parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Ocean counties. There, incumbent Rep. Jeff Van Drew faces conservative Robert Patterson in the Republican primary. Van Drew has raised about 10 times more than Patterson, outspent him 6-to-1 and has Trump’s endorsement, which is going to make it hard for Patterson to unseat Van Drew even by highlighting Van Drew’s party switch and more liberal positions in a district that chose moderate Republican representation for decades.

In the 2nd District, all eyes are on the Democratic primary, where five candidates are vying for the right to challenge Van Drew in November and take back the seat the Democratic Party held for less than a year. Van Drew was sworn in as a Democrat in January 2019 and 11 months later, after refusing to vote for Trump’s impeachment, he switched parties.

Three of the five Democratic candidates — Amy Kennedy, Brigid Callahan Harrison and Will Cunningham — participated in a debate last month and espoused similar Democratic values with Cunningham leaning the farthest left. Political observers see the race as more realistically a two-woman matchup, with Harrison backed by more establishment Democrats — including the South Jersey party machine led by George Norcross — and Kennedy endorsed by the party in Atlantic County, which has the largest share of Democrats of the eight counties that make up the district, as well as by Gov. Phil Murphy.

Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, got into the race later than Harrison but has outraised and outspent her by more than 3-to-1. As of the June 17 campaign filing, Kennedy had $256,000 on hand, compared with Harrison’s less than $10,000, according to the website Open Secrets. Cunningham had about $56,000 while John Francis of West Cape May had about $12,000. Harrison was getting more help from outside spending groups, though, including $210,000 spent by General Majority PAC, which has ties to Norcross. Harrison attacked Kennedy last month for spending by a couple of single-issue groups to advance Kennedy’s chances.

In the neighboring 3rd District, which includes parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, Republicans Kate Gibbs and Dave Richter have been slugging it out for the opportunity to challenge the New Jersey freshman Democrat considered most vulnerable in the fall, Andy Kim. Kim has no primary challenge.

Credit: katefornj.com
Kate Gibbs is one of two Republicans in a bitter contest to face Democratic incumbent Andy Kim in November.

Gibbs, a former Burlington County freeholder, and Richter, former executive of a major construction firm, have been tossing charges at one another. In a debate between the two last month, Richter accused Gibbs of nepotism because her mother was hired by the Burlington County Bridge Commission after Gibbs was elected freeholder. Gibbs has created the “Richie Richter” website criticizing Richter on a number of issues and accusing him of “redefining the word carpetbagger” for exploring a congressional run in Florida and in the 2nd District before deciding to run in the 3rd while his main home is in Princeton, which is in the 12th District.

Richter had outspent Gibbs more than 2-to-1 through June 17, according to Open Secrets, but she is benefiting from some $360,000 in outside spending, which essentially evens out the money race. The two have also split the county parties, with Burlington backing Gibbs and Richter winning Ocean’s endorsement.

Problems with mail-in process

Because all active partisan voters automatically received a mail-in ballot — at the direction of Murphy,  who is hoping to limit the further spread of COVID-19 — many have likely already voted. Most people received their ballots in mid-June, although the process has been plagued in some areas by computer glitches, postal delivery problems and one mail truck caught fire in Morris County, burning an unknown number of ballots.

Those who are still undecided can read more about the House and Senate races on NJ Spotlight’s elections page and have until as late as 8 p.m. Tuesday to get their ballots in if they choose to deliver them to their county board of elections or deposit them into one of the drop boxes set up around each county. Anyone who plans to use the postal service to mail back a ballot needs to get it postmarked by Tuesday and should be aware that it must be received by county election officials by July 14 in order to be counted, so if there are known delivery delays in certain areas it might be safer to use a drop box or deliver the ballot in person.

About 1,700 polling locations will be open Tuesday from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. throughout the state for in-person voting, at least one per community. Virtually everyone who votes in person will have to fill out a provisional ballot rather than use a voting machine.

NJ Spotlight has put together a guide with all the details about how to vote this year. Information is also available on the state Division of Elections’ website and the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics also has a wealth of information about the primary and about voting by mail.