Home>Articles>A look at tonight’s New Jersey primary

A look at tonight’s New Jersey primary

By Harrison W. Lavelle, July 07 2020 7:36 pm

New Jersey will begin tabulating results for its primary elections today in a campaign marked by a multitude of competitive primaries worth watching in the state, many fueled by elaborate attacks and raucous rhetoric.

The state of each competitive primary race will be analyzed, presenting you with the information you need ahead of the primary results.

Complete results will likely not be available on election night because this election is being conducted almost entirely by mail due to the coronavirus.

Because of these problems, County Boards of Elections have been given up to a week after the election to accept ballots as long as they were mailed before 8PM on election day. While there will likely be enough returns from County Clerks to make projections in lopsided races, marginal races may have their outcomes in doubt until results are fully certified on or after July 23rd.

New Jersey Senate – Republican

The battle within the Republican party to determine who gets to take on the Democratic nominee in November has quickly become one of the most divisive Senate primaries in the Garden State’s recent memory. There are five total candidates seeking the Republican nomination: Rik Mehta, Hirsh Singh, Tricia Flanagan, Natalie Lynn Rivera, and Eugene Anagnos. 

The two leading candidates are Rik Mehta and Hirsh Singh, and they are currently the only candidates who have procured county Republican support.

Mehta has never run for office before, and according to his campaign website he has built his career as a small business entrepreneur within the healthcare/biotech industry. In addition to work in the private sector, he also served in the public sector as a Consumer Safety Officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Singh, his main challenger, earned an engineering degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2009 and has worked in the private sector at his family-owned business, Hi-Tech Systems, in New Jersey since 2004. He made his first forays into public service with two unsuccessful primary bids, first in 2017 for Governor, and again in 2018 for the 2nd district. 

Both candidates’ positions are conservative, but Singh appears to be the more conservative of the two.

This brand is embraced by Singh, a self-proclaimed “lifelong conservative” and “the only true Republican in the election.” Singh has also repeatedly criticized Mehta during the campaign by pointing out his past registration as a Democrat, with his website stating Mehta was an “Obama/Clinton-era Democrat”.

Mehta is viewed as the front runner. There is strong evidence for this characterization. Mehta has been endorsed by former Gov. Chris Christie, the most prominent New Jersey Republican office holder in the last decade, as well as the county Republican organizations of sixteen of New Jersey’s counties.

Singh has been endorsed by four county committees: Atlantic, Cumberland, Ocean, and Cape May. All of these are located in the southern half of the state, which is Singh’s home region.

While Mehta has an advantage when it comes to line endorsements, it is still important to recognize the county committees endorsing Singh, particularly Atlantic county due to its political importance in South Jersey. At the end of the day, Mehta’s line endorsements come from counties that make up 81.6% of the registered Republican vote. Singh’s make up just 18.4% of that vote. These data show a clear advantage for Mehta, cementing his frontrunner status.

The campaign has been incredibly divisive. On coronavirus, which remains one of the most consequential issues this election, the two candidates have posed a stark contrast to each other. Mehta, touting his experience in medicinal and healthcare related fields, released a video on his website explaining the Coronavirus while providing tips to combat the spread. Singh, on the other hand, has focused more on the implications that the Coronavirus lockdown has had on New Jersey’s small businesses, and even posted a video on Instagram of himself speaking at a rally, where many attendees were not wearing masks. 

Singh has also accused Mehta of “illegally claiming a homestead exemption in Washington D.C. on tax returns while living in New Jersey.” Singh, and other challengers, have used this to portray Mehta as a hypocrite who was out-of-touch with New Jersey voters, many of whom pay some of the highest property taxes in the country. Despite the lines of attack Singh has employed on Mehta, it is important to remember that most of these allegations remain in the political mainstream and are unlikely to sway the votes of the average New Jersey voter.

Singh has not been out of the spotlight either, though. He was recently denounced by many state Republicans, including 3rd district candidate Kate Gibbs and NJ GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt, following accusations that his mailers implied that voters should commit voter fraud by voting twice. The controversy grew after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal criticized the content of a series of Singh’s campaign mailers that seemed to push for double-voting. There have been calls for Hirsh Singh to drop out of the race.

Regardless of which Republican prevails in the primary, they will be a heavy underdog against Senator Cory Booker in November, should Booker defeat challenger Lawrence Hamm in his primary.

New Jersey is a state where Democrats have long had a persistent advantage in its Senate races (the last Republican to win a Senate race here was Clifford Case in 1972), and the fact that this Senate race coincides with the 2020 Presidential race makes a Republican victory even more unlikely (New Jersey hasn’t voted for a Republican Presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988).

One of the main reasons for this Democratic advantage is voter registration. According to July 1st statistics, Democrats hold the advantage in voter registration over unaffiliated voters for the first time in the state’s history. The current numbers are 38.7% Democratic, 37.7% unaffiliated, 22.2% Republican, and 1.4% other. These numbers are certainly positive for any Democrat that can turn out the base while winning over a significant number of unaffiliated voters.

Because of the Democratic registration advantage and the likelihood of New Jersey’s Democratic base to turn out in a state that President Trump is not contesting at the top of the ticket in 2020, a close Senate race is not likely. Senator Booker also remains fairly popular in the state, with a 45-36-19% approval rating according to the Q4 2019 Morning Consult Senate polling.

From a trivia standpoint, New Jersey hasn’t had a particularly close Senate race since Jon Corzine’s narrow 3-point win over Congressman Bob Franks in 2000.

Another plus for Booker in the general election, if he wins his primary, are the recent Monmouth University polls that showed him ahead of two prospective challengers. Booker led Mehta 55-32% and also led Singh by a larger 58-33% margin. Even if the race does tighten, Booker will still be a strong favorite.

NJ-2 Democratic

Jeff Van Drew’s (R-Dennis) party switch was not expected, but isn’t hard to believe. Van Drew’s political record in the State Senate and the House was fairly conservative for a Democrat, and he was expected to have opposition in 2020 from the left-wing of the Democratic Party long before he switched sides.

Voting against the impeachment inquiry in the House was also damaging to his standing as a Democrat at the time, given the unpopularity of President Trump within the Democratic Caucus and within New Jersey as a whole. In the long run, though, the support of the President may help him. The 2nd district is, after all, a seat that voted for Trump in 2016.

Van Drew’s switch garnered the support of the national Republican establishment figures like President Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and convinced businessman David Richter to jump into the primary for the 3rd district. Van Drew still faces opposition from Republican Bob Patterson, a former Trump administration official, but he remains a strong favorite in his first primary as a member of the Republican Party.

On the Democratic side, there is a crowded field of candidates seeking the nomination to win back this swing district, which was held by Democrat William Hughes from 1975 to 1995.

The two main contenders are Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University who is notable for her decades-long career in New Jersey politics. West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, William Cunningham, and Robert Turkavage are also running.

Support is mainly divided between Kennedy and Harrison. Harrison has the support of prominent New Jersey politicians including Menendez, and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney.

One politician that has dedicated himself immensely to Harrison’s campaign is Cory Booker, who has appeared in Harrison’s TV spots, and has even given up the line in Atlantic and Ocean County to run on the ballot with Harrison. Harrison has the support of six counties, with the exception of Atlantic, which backed Kennedy, and Ocean, which remained neutral. 

Kennedy has also received some significant endorsements to compete with Harrison. The powerful Atlantic County Democratic Committee has given her their line endorsement, which brings significant political advantages to an electoral coalition of any Democrat running in the 2nd district. This electoral advantage comes from data that show that Atlantic County makes up 41% of the votes cast in the 2nd district’s Democratic primary.

Competing with Harrison’s endorsements by the American Federation of Teachers NJ and the Laborers’ International Union of America, Kennedy received the backing of the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America. The backing of the NJEA is important because the union is also associated with a PAC that would be financially beneficial to Kennedy’s coffers. All totaled, Harrison has thirteen labor endorsements and Kennedy has four.

Kennedy has also received critical endorsements from Gov. Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. Having the support of the Governor is important because he has high name recognition among New Jersey voters, and his strong influence in the state Democratic Party could be critical to turning out voters for Kennedy on primary day.

One of the issues of the campaign is Atlantic City Democratic power-player Craig Callaway’s support for Amy Kennedy. Kennedy’s main opponent, Brigid Callahan Harrison, has implied that this is a sign of corruption. Harrison elaborated on this further in a candidate forum when she talked about the importance of democracy, saying she’d rather lose than be elected as a politician beholden to a political machine.

She, along with Robert Turkavage, have already committed to not seeking Callaway’s help in Atlantic County if they are the nominees. For these reasons it is unlikely that voters, many of whom haven’t even heard of Craig Callaway, will reprimand Kennedy for an accusation they likely haven’t even heard of. 

Kennedy is not the only candidate who has been criticized for a relationship. Kennedy’s husband, Patrick Kennedy, has made accusations that Harrison is connected to George Norcross, a power-player in the Democratic politics of South Jersey. Harrison denied the characterization and said “Unlike your wife and the campaign you are personally funding, I am beholden to no-one.”

The primary here is expected to be fairly close, and there have been questions about how efficiently the elections can be conducted. Harrison, alluding to the chaotic Paterson local elections earlier this year, suggested that the U.S. Attorney should send election monitors to the 2nd district to ensure the election is conducted safely. 

The general election will likely be hotly contested by both parties, but a lack of party unity following a divisive primary could hurt the Democrats’ ability to flip the seat back in November.

Most prominent political punditry organizations, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report, and Inside Elections, rate this seat as Leans Republican for the general election. Van Drew’s large victory margins in his State Senate races showed his popularity then, but given the fact that much of the 2nd district’s territory is outside of his old Senate district, his popularity cannot be taken for granted now. 

One thing Van Drew does have going for him are the Republican trends in South Jersey, which were clear-cut in 2019 when Michael Testa flipped Van Drew’s old senate seat to the Republicans. Republicans also gained two assemblymen, Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan, in South Jersey in 2019.

Whether or not President Trump carries this district again will play an important role in Van Drew’s ability to hold the seat, since Van Drew will require straight-ticket Republican voters, coupled with unaffiliated voters, to secure a re-election victory. 

Trump carried the 2nd district by 4.6% in 2016, and according to a September 2019 Monmouth University poll he had a disapproval rating of only 44-48-8% in South Jersey, far better than his 31-60-9% disapproval in North Jersey. The polling data also back Van Drew’s anti-impeachment vote, with 69% of South Jerseyans saying Trump should not be impeached, and 56% saying impeachment had no effect on their vote in 2020.

New Jersey’s voter registration, which favors unaffiliated voters in the 2nd district, shows why Van Drew needs a coalition of Republicans and unaffiliated voters to win. According to the New Jersey Division of Elections, the voting population of the 2nd district is 37.9% unaffiliated, 32.2% Democratic, 28.5% Republican, and 1.4% other. President Trump may help turn out Republicans and right-leaning unaffiliated voters, which would help Van Drew down ballot, but Joe Biden, who shared a Delaware/South Jersey media market during his long Senate tenure, may be stronger than Clinton was in 2016 here.

Whomever the Democratic nominee ends up being we can expect them to put up a fight, though we haven’t had any general election polling to indicate the nature of the race. Kennedy is a strong fundraiser for a non-incumbent, but it is unclear if the allegations against her will damage her in the election. Harrison has not raised as much money as well as Kennedy, but may benefit from her decades-long record in New Jersey politics. National Democrats are likely to spend here to help the eventual nominee defeat Van Drew in an effort to show that party switching while in office should be reprimanded. 

NJ-3 Republican

One of the competitive Republican primaries in New Jersey this cycle is in the 3rd district.

When Van Drew switched parties, Republican businessman David Richter switched districts to run against former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs for the seat of Democrat Andy Kim (D-Moorestown).

Gibbs has tried to portray herself as the ideal conservative for the seat, and has connections to organized labor that could be beneficial for winning voters that normally vote Democratic in the general election. She has been endorsed by the Operating Engineers Union, and has served as Deputy Director of the 825 Electrical Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative. 

Richter is arguing that he is the better conservative for the seat, and has attacked Gibbs for being supported by the same union that endorsed Hillary Clinton for President in 2016.

Despite the fact that Gibbs has more support from national Republicans, Richter has remained a formidable opponent. Part of this is Richter’s warchest, which has proven his ability to self-fund in the primary. This has given him a narrow edge over Gibbs in one of the most important aspects of the campaign, but it is unclear if he will be able to continue to adequately self-fund going into November.

To analyze this race, you must first look at the candidates’ backgrounds.

Kate Gibbs served as one of Burlington County’s two chosen-Freeholders from her victory in 2015 to her re-election defeat in 2018. In 2020, she decided to seek the Republican nomination to face off against freshman Democrat Andy Kim, who won the traditionally-Republican district by a thin margin in 2018 against Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur.

Gibbs locked up the endorsements of national party figures like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and prominent Republicans in the New Jersey legislature, like Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr fairly early. 

When endorsements from local politicians are tallied, they largely match the county line endorsements. Gibbs has been endorsed by the Burlington County Republican Organization and local party leadership, as well as nine public officials from Burlington County. Richter has been endorsed by the Ocean County Republicans along with twenty four public officials from Ocean County, far more than Gibbs.

Richter is a first time candidate who comes from the private sector. Despite his fundraising lead over Gibbs, if he wins the nomination, his war-chest may be shallower than it appears. This is because it is not immediately clear how much cash Richter has access to, personal and from family and friends. 

Like the Republican Senate primary, the campaign here has also been inflammatory.

One of the more prominent arguments developed after Richter wrote a since-deleted tweet where he replied to Gibbs’ campaign manager, Angelo Lamberto, “Hey Angelo, I hope you punched some holes in the box where you are hiding Kate.” This comment was criticized by a group of seven female Republican state legislators who said that “sexism was thriving in New Jersey politics.”

Another campaign issue has formed around Gibbs’s criticism of David Richter’s business dealings. In an attempt to win a battle between two candidates trying to “out conservative each other”, Gibbs ran ads criticizing Richter for doing business with Joe Biden’s brother. 

In response to Gibbs’s attacks, Richter criticized Gibbs for violating campaign finance laws. Richter claimed that Gibbs received a speaking slot at the Republican State Committee’s annual summit after the union that Gibbs works for donated $25,000 from its political committee. The Richter campaign claimed that Gibbs used this platform to promote her claim, and accused the political organization associated with her union of exceeding the maximum FEC contribution limit.

Looking at the accusations that have flown around in the primary, it is important to take them at face value. The primary here is still expected to be close, and the divisive rhetoric of the campaign may not play a large impact on voters’ choices.

The general election will commence with Congressman Andy Kim as the narrow favorite because he has shown himself to be an incredibly strong incumbent. Despite its shift toward the Democrats on the Congressional level in 2018, the district still voted for Trump by six-points in 2016. Despite the district’s Republican edge on paper, Kim remains a favorite because of his strong fundraising lead – $3.2 million of cash on hand according his latest fundraising report.

Because of this cash advantage, most pundits, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball, view the race as Leans Democratic. Both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses going into the general election, and Congressman Kim will remain a formidable incumbent to beat. 

NJ-5 Democratic and Republican

Democratic

The Democratic primary in the 5th district will test how well a progressive local official running performs against a two-term incumbent.

That incumbent is two-term Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff). Glen Rock Councilwoman Arati Kreibich’s base is composed of Democrats who view Gottheimer as too moderate for the party. 

Gottheimer’s record as a moderate Democrat fits his district, which is economically diverse and voted narrowly for Donald Trump in 2016. Gottheimer is widely accepted as the favorite over Kreibich because of his ideology, his large fundraising lead, his name recognition, and his strong 66-23% lead in a poll conducted by his campaign

While Kreibich has attracted some new online progressive support, she hasn’t attracted significant attention from the media on any level.

Her strongest show of support came from Bernie Sanders, who endorsed her last month. This helped boost Kreibich’s exposure slightly among progressives, and could help to boost interest in progressive voters that Kreibich is trying to turn out.

It is also important to note that an incumbent Member of Congress in New Jersey has not lost a non-redistricting re-election primary in nearly a century.

Republican

The main candidates on the Republican side are Frank Pallotta and former councilman John McCann.

McCann was the Republican nominee in 2018, and was defeated by a 56.2-42.5% margin. Now he is running for the seat again. In his way stands Frank Pallotta, a candidate that has procured more endorsements from prominent politicians, including that of long-time State Senator Gerald Cardinale, and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

One of McCann’s most important advantages is his line support in Bergen County, which composed 56.3% of the electorate in the 2018 Republican primary here. If McCann utilizes the Bergen line to run up a strong margin of victory in the county, like his 13.7% margin 2018, then it could help him win the primary again.

Pallotta may have more legislative support than McCann this time around, but McCann has the Bergen line. Since we don’t know how important either of these factors will be in tonight’s primary, the outcome is unclear. There has been no polling of the Republican primary.

General

Gottheimer will be a tough opponent to defeat in November regardless of the Republican nominee. The current consensus rating ranges from Likely to Safe Democratic, with Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections rating the race as Safe Democratic, and The Cook Political Report rating it as Likely Democratic. These ratings represent Gottheimer’s strength in being able to win over Republican crossover votes like he did in 2016 when he defeated Republican Congressman Scott Garrett. Gottheimer has amassed a large warchest over the course of his tenure, and it will be beneficial to his ability to run a successful campaign in November.

Harrison W. Lavelle is a New Jersey Globe Summer Fellow for 2020. 

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