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Republican congressional candidate Frank Pallotta. (Photo: Pallotta for Congress).

Geography and ballot design shaped New Jersey’s congressional primaries

Winning the line isn’t always enough to get a favorable ballot

By Joey Fox, June 08 2022 5:36 pm

For those outside of New Jersey, the county line, in which party-endorsed candidates get a preferential spot on the primary ballot, can seem like an intimidating, almost mythical thing. County parties endorse whichever candidates they want – and then those candidates just win? Do New Jersey party leaders really have such awesome power?

As last night’s primary results showed, there’s a bit more nuance to it than that. The line is certainly powerful – after all, every candidate who won last night received at least one party line – but it’s also complex, and it may produce different results depending on the county, candidate, and context.

For one, the county parties don’t always agree with one another, as happened this year in the 5th and 11th districts’ Republican primaries.

For another, every county structures its ballot differently, and candidates’ fortunes can rise or fall based on ballot design and simple luck. Any candidate affiliated with a slate, whether or not they’re on the line, has a chance to win the best position on the ballot in a random drawing.

And even if the lines break in one candidate’s favor, their opponents might have local bases of support they can count on to boost them anyways.

Yesterday’s primaries truly demonstrated that if you’ve seen one election in New Jersey, you’ve seen one election; each race played out in its own unique way. (Importantly, the results have also not been fully tabulated yet, though there aren’t enough late-counted ballots to overturn any results.)

Here’s a look at the state’s five most intriguing primary elections from last night, and how geography, county lines, and ballot designs aided some campaigns and laid waste to others.

The 5th district

In what probably came the closest to being the state’s marquee race, investment banker and 2020 congressional nominee Frank Pallotta narrowly beat U.S. Marine veteran Nick De Gregorio for the Republican nomination in the 5th congressional district, 50-46%.

The district’s county lines were split between the two candidates: Bergen Republicans, representing by far the biggest county in the district, went for De Gregorio; Passaic Republicans gave their line to Pallotta; and Sussex Republicans don’t have a formal line but strongly supported Pallotta’s bid. (The exact same thing happened in the 2020 primary, when John McCann won the Bergen line but Pallotta was backed by the rest of the district.)

Had De Gregorio gotten a huge margin out of Bergen County, he almost certainly would have won the race – but Pallotta held him to just a 51-46% win in the county. Pallotta’s previous run for the same district was no doubt helpful, since he was the Republican standard-bearer only two years ago and had a major head start over De Gregorio in name recognition, even in De Gregorio’s base.

A sample ballot in Bergen County.

The design of Bergen County’s ballots was also critical. Pallotta ran with a slate of county-level candidates, allowing him to get the prime ballot position; a voter who didn’t know much about either candidate going in would have seen a name they might have recognized in Column A and a name they probably didn’t in Column B.

The district’s outlying counties, on the other hand, strongly backed Pallotta, who won 58-37% in Sussex and 61-31% in Passaic. Without a huge bank of votes in Bergen to bail him out, De Gregorio simply got overpowered by Pallotta’s base.

The 11th district

The one primary that wasn’t called last night was the 11th district’s Republican primary, where former Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Paul DeGroot pulled off an upset against Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen, who was seen as the frontrunner for the nomination.

DeGroot currently has 39.6% of the vote to Selen’s 35.1%. A third candidate, U.S. Army veteran Toby Anderson, got around 20% of the vote, impressive for someone with no county lines and little money. 

Selen leads in Morris and Essex Counties after winning the county line in both; Morris makes up around three-quarters of the primary electorate and is also Selen’s political base. But both leads are miniscule, with Selen up 40-35% in Morris and just 34-33% in Essex.

DeGroot, on the other hand, absolutely swamped the field in Passaic County, where he won the county line and where he currently has a truly astonishing 73% of the vote. The story of the race may be simply that DeGroot turned out his base, even though it was a small one, while Selen couldn’t activate his much larger base of voters.

A sample ballot in Passaic County.

Once again, ballot design likely played a role in the results. In Passaic County, DeGroot was bracketed with a full slate of county and local candidates, while Selen was listed second-from-last. That may explain why Selen is somehow in fourth place in the county, behind Anderson and even minor candidate Ruth McAndrew.

The ballots in Essex and Morris, on the other hand, didn’t give Selen nearly that same level of advantage. DeGroot was listed in second on both ballots, and in Morris he was in the same column as County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo, whose off-the-line re-election bid looks like it will probably succeed.

In Essex, Selen faced the added challenge that there wasn’t much of a line to speak of. Given that many towns had no local Republican candidates, and the county committee is only elected in presidential years (something also true in Morris County), Selen’s only running mate was county executive candidate Adam Kraemer. Passaic County ballots, on the other hand, were chock-full of downballot candidates running alongside DeGroot.

The 3rd district

At face value, there’s no particular reason why the matchup between party-endorsed businessman Bob Healey Jr. and off-the-line gym owner Ian Smith – a matchup that Healey won 53-38% – would have a strong geographical component. Both Healey and Smith are from Burlington County, and Healey attracted essentially every establishment endorsement in the district, regardless of county.

But yet again, ballot design reigns supreme.

Smith joined forces with a county commissioner candidate, Valerie Gallagher, in Burlington County but didn’t align with anyone in Mercer or Monmouth Counties. That meant he was eligible for the top ballot position in Burlington – which he got – while he was relegated to the second column in both Monmouth and Mercer.

A sample ballot in Burlington County.

And lo and behold, the election results reflected that divide. Healey won 60-29% in Monmouth and 55-33% in Mercer, but only won Burlington by a narrow 49-44% margin.

The 7th district

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) was never in much danger of losing, thanks to how splintered his opposition in the 7th district Republican primary was. The bigger question was how dominant his margin would be, and the answer is “not especially dominant”: Kean won with 46% of the vote, while 2021 gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo got 24% and Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) got 15%.

Looking at a map of the results, the most noticeable outlier county is Sussex County, which backed Rizzo 37-34% as every other county was giving Kean a margin of 15 points or more. Kean had the backing of the Sussex Republican organization, but Sussex Republicans don’t have a county line, and Rizzo ended up getting the first ballot position while Kean was stranded way down in sixth.

A sample ballot in Sussex County.

Sussex also wasn’t in the 7th district at all in 2020, when Kean narrowly lost the general election for the previous version of the district against Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes). That means Sussex voters wouldn’t have had the same experience voting for Kean that most other voters in the district had two years ago.

Kean won by a lot everywhere else, but some margins are still worth noting. 

Kean got 60% of the vote in Union County, his home and political base, far higher than he got anywhere else in the district. Peterson, meanwhile, came in a solid second place in his home of Hunterdon County, with 26% to Kean’s 42%. (Peterson came in third or worse everywhere else.)

The 2nd district

The 2nd district Democratic primary between Tim Alexander and Carolyn Rush wasn’t on many radars, including those at the New Jersey Globe, in part because Alexander had near-unanimous party support and in part because either would be heavy underdogs against Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis).

But Rush managed to pull off a surprisingly strong showing, losing 62-38% with a campaign that spent nearly no money. She won Gloucester County 60-40%, while Alexander won every other county in the district, including a huge 69-31% win in his home of Atlantic County.

A sample ballot in Gloucester County.

Rush’s victory in Gloucester is worth looking at further, if only as a testament to the power of party lines. Though Alexander had the support of almost every Democratic official in the district, he unusually shared the county line with Rush in Gloucester County, and Rush was in fact given the top spot on the primary ballot. 

That created essentially an open primary – and with neither of the candidates being very well-known, voters seem to have opted for the first name on the ballot.

Other races

None of New Jersey’s other congressional primaries had quite as strong of a geographical component, but several races did have intriguing trends and dynamics.

In the 4th district Republican primary, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester) defeated podcaster Mike Crispi by a similar margin in both of the district’s counties: 57-38% in Ocean County, 58-35% in Monmouth County. Smith appeared to struggle in some Ocean County towns that may be new to him as of redistricting – though a more detailed municipal-level analysis will have to wait until the votes are finalized.

To the north, the 6th district Republican primary was easily won by Monmouth County Commissioner Sue Kiley over 2020 Senate nominee (and Middlesex County resident) Rik Mehta, 57-27%. Kiley did well in both Monmouth (61-25%) and Middlesex (52-28%); she had the line in both, and a battle of the counties was averted.

In the 8th district Democratic primary, Port Authority Commissioner Rob Menendez proved so dominant that it’s barely worth mentioning any details other than his 84-11% victory. One interesting tidbit: of the district’s three counties, Menendez did the worst in his home of Hudson County at “only” 83% of the vote, possibly due to the larger white population in that part of the district.

Finally, the 10th district primary was a blowout for Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-Newark) pretty much everywhere, but especially in the urban precincts that make up his base. Suburban areas like Montclair were a little more amenable to challenger Imani Oakley, although even in them Payne won by upwards of 50 percentage points.

2022 NJ primary
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