Amy Kennedy’s victory at the Atlantic County Democratic convention was a victory for progressives at the grassroots level, although there were several factors in play that led to a rare loss by a candidate supported by powerbroker George Norcross.
Kennedy won the Atlantic line on the first ballot by a 157 to 73, 63%-28%, win over Norcross’ candidate, political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison.
It is rare the Norcross’ candidate loses a South Jersey vote, although there were other factors in play on this race.
Kennedy had support from progressive county committee members, but she also had the backing of a formidable Atlantic City Democratic machine allied with former city council president Craig Callaway.
The Callaway block was a critical component to Kennedy’s victory. The Callaway family controls between 55 and 70 county committee votes in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
It’s probable that Kennedy became the front-runner upon becoming the Callaway candidate.
Still, even the high estimate of the Callaway count would have put Kennedy ahead. That’s’ due to the other elements of the race.
She also had the backing of popular Atlantic County sheriff Eric Scheffler, and attorney Bill Hughes, Jr., a former congressional candidate whose late father represented Atlantic County in Congress for twenty years.
Kennedy also had the benefit of dual political lineages, both factors in her victory.
Her father, Jerry Savell, is at Atlantic County freeholder who served as a councilman in Absecon and Pleasantville. Savell remains popular among party insiders and Kennedy has been attending local Democratic events for four decades.
Democrats still attach significant good will to the Kennedy name; the candidate’s husband, former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), is the son of the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy.
But perhaps more importantly, Kennedy had access to a political infrastructure typically unavailable to most non-establishment candidates. Patrick Kennedy is a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman who understands the mechanics of House races.
By the numbers
The progressive base among county committee in Atlantic is probably about 19%, more or less, based on the two-candidate non-binding presidential preference vote between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Biden beat Sanders, 205 to 48, a massive 81%-19% victory.
The county committee is not necessarily reflective of the way rank-and-file Democrats vote in the primary election. In 2016, Clinton had the organization line in Atlantic, but Sanders won 39% of the vote in the primary there.
Jeff Van Drew, now a Republican congressman after switching parties last December, won 58% of the vote at the Atlantic County Democratic convention. More than four out of ten (42%) of Democratic county committee members in Atlantic County voted for one of the other three candidates.
In that contest, former congressional staffer Will Cunningham finished second with 41 votes, followed by Sean Thom (32 votes) and Tanzie Youngblood (21 votes).
Cunningham’s number dropped from 41 to 21 in Atlantic County between 2018 and 2020.
Ten votes were cast for Ashley Bennett, who dropped out of the race in her convention speech with a sort of “they all suck” message. It’s not clear how many votes Bennett would have received — or whom she would have taken them from — had she remained in the race.
Retired FBI agent Robert Turkavage received two votes. West Cape May Commissioner John Francis III was not on the ballot.
The South Jersey block makes up 21.8% of the total number of registered Democrats statewide. Murphy won 45.4% of the vote in the seven South Jersey counties in 2017, just three percentage points below his statewide total.
Atlantic County was one of just four counties to give Murphy more than 50% of the vote in the 2017 Democratic primary.
In the fight for Democratic state chairman that never went to a vote, a New Jersey Globe tally at the time the deal was announced gave LeRoy Jones, Jr., who was backed by South Jersey Democrats, three of the four Atlantic County votes. A fourth vote, former Atlantic City Democratic municipal chair Joyce Mollineaux, appeared in incumbent John Currie’s column.
While Atlantic had been viewed as part of the South Jersey machine, it’s never been completely under Norcross’ thumb,
Republicans have controlled county government since Dick Squires ousted one-term incumbent Charles Worthington in 1979.
In the 2008 Democratic U.S. Senate primary, when Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Bellmawr) tried to oust incumbent Frank Lautenberg, Atlantic gave Andrews a plurality of just 489 votes, 50%-45.5%. Andrews won more than 80% in Camden and Gloucester counties.
Norcross played in Atlantic in 2007, when James Whelan, an assemblyman and former Atlantic City mayor, challenged incumbent Sonny McCullough (R-Egg Harbor Township) for a State Senate seat. Whelan’s victory helped bolster Steve Sweeney’s successful bid to oust Richard Codey for Senate President.
Today, Republican state senators have courtesy over appointments in three of the seven South Jersey counties: Christopher Brown (R-Ventnor) in Atlantic, and Michael Testa, Jr. (R-Vineland) in Cumberland and Cape May.
The Democratic primary contest helps Van Drew the same way a fierce GOP race helps freshman Rep. Andy Kim (D-Marlton) in the 3rd district.
The battle might have never occurred if Kennedy had expressed interest before Harrison was first in the door.
The Kennedy’s had enjoyed a close relationship with Norcross in the past and likely would have received his support had the organization not already been committed to Harrison.
Van Drew won the 2018 Democratic primary with 57%, with the rest of the vote divided between three other candidates: Tanzie Youngblood (19%), Cunningham (16%), and Nate Kleinman (8%). In that contest, Van Drew carried all eight counties; He took 63% in Atlantic, but beat Cunningham by just 25 votes in Salem.
What comes next?
Kennedy will run on the organization line in Atlantic County with U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who endorsed Harrison on Friday. It’s possible that Biden will also be on that line. Atlantic County makes up 41% of the Democratic primary voters in the 2nd district.
Harrison already has the line in Cumberland County, which makes up 8% of the Democrats in the district. She’ll run with Booker there.
Kennedy will need to decide if she wants to bracket with Cumberland County freeholder Jack Surrency, who is running for re-election off the line after being dumped by the local Democratic party.
The lines in Cape May (15%), Gloucester (13%), Salem (8%), Camden (1%) and Burlington (0.2%), are expected to go to Harrison. She has the endorsements of the five Democratic county chairs.
Ocean County, which makes up 5% of the registered Democrats, has still not endorsed a candidate.
Depending on what happens with an open primary, Kennedy might have the option of bracketing with Sanders in the other counties – largely to avoid being placed in ballot Siberia in a field that currently includes six candidates.