In Union, Assemblywoman Stender, who ran two races against Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) before redistricting moved her out of his district in 2011, is considering entering the race, and so could Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union).
“There’s always the possibility that Jerry Green, realizing that he can’t elect a Union County candidate, would decide to play kingmaker,” Murray said. “The wild card here is Shirley Turner and the potential that Jerry Green would say he wants an African-American to represent the district.” A Greenstein-Turner primary race under that scenario would be a tossup, he said.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), who ran against Lance in 2012 even though he lived in Holt’s district, could decide to run, which could siphon off a significant Asian-American vote from towns like East Windsor and West Windsor that Greenstein has represented, Murray said.
Murray and national political experts agree that Holt’s district is “safely Democratic,” which is the reason Dr. Alieta Eck, who was trounced by Republican conservative Steve Lonegan in last August’s U.S. Senate primary, might remain the only GOP candidate in the field.
Belgard, the consensus Democratic candidate for Congress in the adjacent 3rd District, said last night she was sorry to see Holt retire, praising him as “a phenomenal representative. But I'm excited that so many women have shown interest in the seat. New Jersey hasn't had a female representative in Washington in over a decade, and it's time to change that.”
Belgard has campaigned on women’s issues, noting that as “a woman, I bring a unique perspective to the table. In Congress, I'll be a strong advocate for issues like equal pay for equal work, and I'll fight to preserve funding for women's healthcare services like mammograms, cancer screenings, and pre-natal care.”
Belgard, who has already been endorsed by Emily’s List and raised $175,000 with an assist from U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stands to benefit from a fractured Republican Party in her quest to capture the seat being vacated by Runyan.
Belgard has the solid support of her home county of Burlington, was welcomed on-stage at the Camden County kickoff rally for Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), who has already been coronated for the 1st District House seat being vacated by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), and expects to win the support of the Ocean County Democratic organization.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party in the 3rd District appears headed for a deeply divisive June primary. The race is likely to match up a Republican establishment candidate from Ocean County, such as Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean), against conservative Steve Lonegan, the losing Republican U.S. Senate candidate in October, who is moving 100 miles down the Garden State Parkway from Bergen County to Ocean to run for the open seat.
Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, a popular Burlington County Republican who would probably have been Belgard’s toughest opponent, decided not to run and declared he would support the GOP primary winner -- but not if it is the “carpetbagger” Lonegan.
Murray said the 3rd District, while a tossup based on registration figures, still tends to lean Republican. “That doesn’t mean it’s not doable for Belgard,” he said. “The question is how much money can she raise. She’s not really a known entity outside of Burlington and even inside of Burlington. If Lonegan wins, he will be able to raise a lot of money. How much money can she raise to call him a carpetbagger, and make it stick?”
Belgard has an advantage running as a woman from Burlington County, which makes up half of the 3rd District, said Walsh. “I always think it’s helpful if you are running in a place that’s used to seeing women on the ballot and is comfortable voting for women. It’s tough to break down barriers and be the first woman elected, but that’s not the case here,” she said.
State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) is by far the most popular vote-getter in Burlington County. Sen. Dawn Addiego (R-Burlington) holds the county’s other state Senate seat, and Belgard is one of three women on the five-member Burlington County Board of Freeholders.
New Jersey's track record in electing women is not strong. The New Jersey Legislature ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation for percentage of women legislators for many years. Republican Christine Todd Whitman was the only woman governor; no woman has been elected to the U.S. Senate, and only five women have been elected to Congress -- none since Rep. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) won her last race in 2000.
Walsh and Murray were both intrigued by the role of the party bosses in the developing congressional races.
“Women face a stiff challenge in New Jersey because of how tightly power is held by a handful of political leaders -- some of whom are not even elected to office -- who make decisions about who gets to run and who doesn’t get to run,” Walsh said. “What is significant in the 3rd is we have a seat comes open in a tossup district, a Democratic woman is first out of the gate, and the party is not fielding other candidates. And in the 12th, when a seat comes open, we have multiple women well-positioned to run and nobody is telling them not to.”
Murray said what is interesting is what the different behavior of the candidates in the three districts where congressional seats opened up over the past two months says about the political power structure in those districts.
“In the 1st, Norcross still rules overall and you have the heir apparent already ordained,” Murray said, referring to South Jersey power broker George Norcross’s selection of his brother Donald to run for Andrews’ seat. “In the 3rd, you have all the Republicans keeping their powder dry because (Burlington County Republican leader Glenn) Paulsen and (Ocean County GOP chairman) George Gilmore are still deferred to.
“In Mercer and Middlesex, you don’t even know who the Mercer chair is, and in Middlesex, you have McCabe, but Middlesex has been on ‘Family Feud’ ever since John Lynch went to prison. It isn’t a power structure that commands respect. So you had a free-for-all within minutes of Rush Holt’s announcement, with everyone declaring their candidacy or their interest without even bothering to check with their county organizations,” he said.