Editor’s Note: This article was updated with comment from Spezakis at 3:18 p.m.
Progressive challengers are aiming to follow in the footsteps of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and unseat Democratic incumbents they say are too far to the right.
But Reps. Bill Pascrell and Frank Pallone are not Jeff Van Drew, and their districts aren’t Queens.
Pascrell’s primary challengers, Zina Spezakis and Alp Basaran, are both mounting challenges to the longtime incumbent from the left.
Pallone faces at least three progressive challengers: Russ Cirincione, Zac Roell and John Hsu.
Despite its standing a solidly-blue state, New Jersey politics trend closer to the center — by Democratic standards — than they do to progressive bastions like New York City.
Universally, the challengers don’t agree.
“A lot of their argument is that the party has moved decisively to the left and these older establishment office holders are behind the times,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey politics. “I have this discussion with my students all the time: Do you think that this country or the Democratic party is decidedly left wing, and we inevitably come to the conclusion that it’s not.”
Pallone’s challengers have so far floundered in their fundraising to take on the progressive incumbent, with each failing to bring their fundraising numbers above four digits, but Pascrell’s challengers have raised tens of thousands.
By contrast, Pallone has $2.9 million in his war chest, while Pascrell has close to $1.8 million banked.
But while Spezakis and Basaran have managed to put up somewhat respectable fundraising figures, much of that money came out of their own pocket.
More than half, $49,476, of the $92,930 Spezakis has raised came from personal loans she gave to her campaign. She said the money was meant to seed the start of the campaign.
“You can’t go by the old formula. I think you win by organizing. There’re certain competitive advantages Pascrell has against me, not the least of which is fundraising,” Spezakis said. “Obviously, $1.8 million in the bank is pretty daunting, but our strategy, without giving away too much of the shop, is quite different than the sort of normal way campaigns are run.”
She did not elaborate on what that strategy might be, though she added that what her campaign has raised so far it has raised without a finance director or much of a formal fundraising infrastructure.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee instituted a blacklist policy following Ocasio-Cortez’s win last year. Under that policy, the DCCC won’t work with consultants who work with primary challengers to incumbent Democrats.
For Basaran, the ratio was even starker — $50,000 of the $64,831 he’s raised since launching his campaign came from his own pocket.
So far, much of that both candidates’ money has gone to consulting firms.
Basaran reported paying Revolution Messaging $28,800 in the second and third quarters of 2019.
Spezakis has paid at least $39,000 to three separate consultants since officially launching her campaign in June.
It’s not clear whether consultants convinced the two progressives to run against Pascrell, though it’s still possible they’re getting bad advice.
“If they think they’re going to realistically going to win, then I believe they’re mistaken,” Rasmussen said. “Are they getting bad advice? I don’t know what advice they’re getting, but if it’s anybody other than them making the decision that this is how I want to make my voice heard, then yes, ‘you have a realistic shot of winning this race,’ that would indeed be bad advice.”
Spezakis, a climate activist who was spurred to run by a climate report issued earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has not yet hired a campaign manager or finance director.
She cited the DCCC blacklist for the hiring troubles, adding that she wasn’t seeking a fulltime finance director.
Basaran did not return a call made at 11:43 p.m.
Progressive challengers broadly have regularly countered nay-saying about their chances by citing Ocasio-Cortez’s victory against former New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who was one of the top-ranking Democrats in the House before his upset primary loss in 2018.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be caught off guard, especially last year seeing what happened in Queens,” a Democratic source connected to the House delegation said. “I think that these consultants are talking up a big game and telling these candidates that they have a shot when it’s going to be a lot harder than they are maybe expecting.”
A seismic shift would be needed to oust entrenched and well-regarded Democrats like Pallone and Pascrell, Rasmussen said. Likely nothing short of scandal the incumbents voting drastically out of step with their districts would have much of an effect on a primary.
“Let me make no mistake about this, you’re talking about members of congress of serious substance when you talk about Frank Pallone, being a chairman, or Bill Pascrell. You’re not talking about someone who’s riding on the fumes of his democratic-leaning district,” Rasmussen said. “You’re talking about people who put in a solid performance year over year. You’d need a lot to knock them out.”