Home>Campaigns>For off-the-line congressional candidates, March 31 is the most important day in the world 

Atlis Gym owner Ian Smith. (Photo: Ian Smith).

For off-the-line congressional candidates, March 31 is the most important day in the world 

Candidates without establishment support will have to show fundraising prowess to be viable 

By Joey Fox, March 28 2022 12:24 am

As New Jersey’s annual avalanche of party conventions begins winding down, the frontrunners for the state’s 12 congressional districts are becoming increasingly clear. With near-universal backing from their party’s establishments, candidates like Democrat Tim Alexander in the 2nd district or Republican Tom Kean Jr. in the 7th district have put themselves in the driver’s seat for their party’s nominations.

That makes the upcoming first quarter fundraising deadline on March 31 all the more important. The reports, which must be released to the public by April 15, will be the final concrete indication of how candidates are faring before the June 7 primary, and are the last chance for candidates without party support to show they’re still in the running.

An off-the-line candidate who reports raising hundreds of thousands of dollars this quarter will re-establish themself as a serious contender, while one who raises a four-digit sum can likely be consigned to the dustbin of political history.

There’s also the specter of the April 4 filing deadline before which candidates will either need to gather the necessary 200 signatures or get out of the race entirely. Every cycle, at least once candidate ends their campaign by simply failing to show up on filing day.

This is also the fundraising quarter where people pay more attention to cash-on-hand than to total dollars raised. It doesn’t matter how much an underdog candidate raised if they’ve already burned through their cash and can’t afford to speak to those who vote in primary elections.

For some candidates submitting paltry fundraising reports, a graceful exit might be preferable to a bruising election loss; the money being raised right now will determine not only who wins New Jersey’s 24 congressional primaries, but who even appears on the ballot at all.

The 2nd district 

Civil rights lawyer Tim Alexander has always looked like the frontrunner to take on Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), and he was recently bolstered by his victory at the Atlantic County Democratic convention and the departure of his most serious rival, former Egg Harbor Township police officer Hector Tavarez.

For Alexander’s two remaining Democratic opponents, engineer Carolyn Rush and Rev. Curtis Green, first quarter reports will show whether they have any shot of wresting the nomination away. Rush only raised $20,000 last quarter and Green appears to be running a near-nonexistent campaign, so the chances are not high, and one or both may still decide to follow Tavarez out of the race.For Rush and Green, and others like them across the state, a combination of little money, no organization lines, and little to show beyond a campaign website means there is no real path to a primary victory.

But the fundraising deadline is also an important test of Alexander’s own strength. Even if he’s a solid frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, the campaign against Van Drew is an uphill one, and Alexander will want to have a better performance than the $36,000 he raised last quarter.

Van Drew has also drawn three primary opponents – John Barker, Sean Pignatelli, and Scott Hitchner – each of whom faces a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle on a good day. Two years ago, fresh off his party switch, Van Drew won 82% in the Republican primary against a legitimate candidate. Van Drew raised $587,000 last quarter, a significant sum that still pales in comparison to the totals of some of his Democratic colleagues.

The 3rd district 

The 3rd district’s Republican primary is intriguing in that it features a serious candidate, Atilis Gym owner Ian Smith, who didn’t run for the party line in the first place. Smith is instead counting on his notoriety as an opponent of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Covid restrictions and the national network of donors he’s cultivated to bolster his campaign against fellow Republican Robert Healey, Jr.

This quarter’s fundraising report will show whether that strategy has paid off. Healey has the backing of Burlington, Mercer, and Monmouth Republicans, raised $507,000 last quarter and has the ability to be a self-funder, so Smith will have to put up major numbers to be competitive against Healey and possibly reach the general election against Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), who is sitting on a $3.3 million warchest.

Two other candidates, Democrat Reuven Hendler and Republican Nicholas Ferrera, could in theory upend the race by posting huge first quarters, but there’s no indication that will happen.

The 4th district 

Some Republicans with connections to former President Donald Trump thought Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester) might be vulnerable in a Republican primary, given that Smith voted for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and had to move in order to stay in the district he’s represented for nearly 42 years after the new lines were drawn.

And indeed, no fewer than six candidates have entered the race to take on Smith, including one, conservative podcaster Mike Crispi, with prominent out-of-state support. But Smith easily won both the Monmouth and Ocean County conventions, and his opposition is deeply splintered.

That might change, though, if one of his opponents reports a gangbusters quarter. Realtor Mike Blasi and former NBC Universal attorney David Burg each reported raising around $30,000 last quarter, while Crispi, FBI agent Steve Gray, Englishtown Councilman Daniel Francisco, and perennial candidate Tricia Flanagan either haven’t yet reported any fundraising or, in Flanagan’s case, didn’t even file a report properly.

Should one of Smith’s many challengers come close to matching the incumbent – he raised $345,000 last quarter – the race could come out of the insider bubble. If not, Smith is likely guaranteed a staggering 22nd term in Congress.

The 5th district 

U.S. Marine combat veteran Nick De Gregorio’s resounding victory at the Bergen County Republican convention on Wednesday night cements him as the frontrunner to take on Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff). The Republican raised $407,000 last quarter, putting him well ahead of 2020 nominee Frank Pallotta, who raised just $59,000.

Pallotta has the party line in Passaic County, which makes up a much smaller part of the district than Bergen, but he’ll need to pick up the fundraising pace by quite a bit if he wants to stay in the running. Businessman Fred Schneiderman, who did not compete for any party line, entered the race this year, so first quarter reports will be the first and only chance for him to showcase his campaigning prowess.

Both Pallotta and Schneiderman seemingly have the ability to self-fund, though it’s not clear either will. Pallotta previously loaned his 2020 campaign $1 million, and Schneiderman announced last week that he’ll begin rolling out TV, radio, and digital ads next week, possibly paid for by himself.

Looming over the field is Gottheimer, the Human Fundraising Machine, who is sitting on an incandescent $12 million warchest that is only likely to increase after this quarter’s report. Gottheimer, despite being a frequent bête noire among left-wing Democrats, has not drawn a primary opponent.

The 6th district 

The 6th district is a district where both the primary and the general elections are on the very fringes of being competitive. Monmouth County Commissioner Sue Kiley, with the backing of the Monmouth and Middlesex GOP, is the early frontrunner to win the Republican nod, and is in turn the clear underdog against Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) in the general election.

Kiley launched her campaign after last quarter’s filing deadline, so her fundraising abilities remain a mystery; her two main opponents, 2020 U.S. Senate nominee Rik Mehta and former Republican National Committee staffer Tom Toomey, raised just $13,000 and $23,000 last quarter, respectively. A fourth candidate, 2021 Libertarian Party gubernatorial nominee Gregg Mele, is also in the race.)

Mehta is a real candidate – he carried Monmouth and Middlesex in the GOP U.S. Senate primary two years ago – but he had the lines in his last race; to win without them, he’ll need to show some serious cash.

The 7th district 

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) came within one percentage point of ousting freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) in 2020, and he’s clearly favored to win this year’s Republican primary for a rematch. Kean has won all six county lines or endorsements, and the $501,000 he raised last quarter shows he’s no fundraising slouch, either.

The question, then, is how do Kean’s various opponents proceed? Businessman John Henry Isemann raised a modest $76,000 last quarter and performed respectably at several conventions; 2021 gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo raised a more disappointing $58,000; and Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) entered the race in the new year and has pre-existing relationships with much of the 7th district.

Four other Republican candidates – Fredon Mayor John Flora; U.S. Navy veteran Sterling Irwin Schwab, public works contractor Kevin Dorlon, and businessman Robert Trugman – don’t seem to be running significant campaigns; the same goes for Democrat Brandon Wienberg’s bid against Malinowski in the Democratic primary.

Given the excess of candidates in the district, it would not be a shock if at least one of the 7th district’s eight off-the-line candidates bows out before the filing deadline. Indeed, Trugman has been running for Congress on and off since 1980, yet his name has never appeared on a primary election ballot.

If any of Isemann, Rizzo, or Peterson have colossal first quarters, that’s a sign the race may be more competitive than it appears right now. As long as his opposition is fractured and unable to raise much money, however, Kean is clearly the frontrunner to take on Malinowski (D-Ringoes), who raised $900,000 last quarter.

The 8th district 

From the moment the news of Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York)’s retirement broke, the race for the 8th district was something of an open-and-shut case. Port Authority Commissioner Rob Menendez, the son of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, had the support of nearly every key Democrat a month before he even entered the race, and no prominent candidate has stepped up to challenge him.

Menendez raised more than $200,000 at a fundraiser last week, and his two declared opponents, Brain Varela and David Ocampo Grajales, will likely have a difficult time keeping up. Republicans aren’t a factor in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

The 10th district 

Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-Newark) faces a challenge from Imani Oakley, who is trying to outflank the congressman from the left, and Akil Khalfani, a college professor who ran against Payne as an independent in 2020.

Payne has steadily built up endorsements in recent months and raised a decent $225,000 last quarter, while Oakley raised $121,000. If Oakley can keep that fundraising pace, it at least makes her a viable candidate against Payne, but the incumbent remains strongly favored for renomination.

The 11th district 

For a long while, the 11th district Republican primary to challenge Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) was the state’s most chaotic, but the results of the Morris County Republican convention gave the race some clarity.

Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen narrowly won the Morris line, and several of his most prominent opponents left the race shortly afterwards. Remaining in the race is former Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Paul DeGroot, who has the line in Passaic County, as well as U.S. Army veteran Toby Anderson and newcomer Ruth McAndrew.

Selen raised an anemic $18,000 last quarter, but that may change now that the field has settled somewhat. DeGroot raised $112,000, and Anderson and McAndrew each entered the race after the fourth quarter had ended; all three will have to raise major sums to dethrone Selen and, eventually, Sherill, who raised $776,000 last quarter and has over $4.12 million banked.

The other districts 

The state’s three other districts don’t look like they’ll be interesting this primary season, though a surprisingly strong or weak fundraising report could change that.

In the 1st district, Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) faces an underfunded challenge from teacher Mario DeSantis, who raised just $1,800 last quarter. DeSantis challenged Senate President Steve Sweeney in the Democratic primary for about a day in 2021, but his campaign folded when he couldn’t get enough valid signatures to put his name on the ballot.

The 9th district is near-certain to be a rematch between Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) and 2020 nominee Billy Prempeh, who should have no trouble getting past realtor Patrick Quinn in the Republican primary.

And Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) is overwhelmingly likely to face Republican Darius Mayfield, who faces an unserious challenge from film producer Nick Catucci.

This story was updated at 9:58 a.m. with the addition of Brandon Wienberg, a prospective primary challenger to Rep. Tom Malinowski. It was updated again at 11:49 a.m. on March 29 with the addition of Sean Pignatelli, a prospective primary challenger to Rep. Jeff Van Drew.

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