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Congressional candidate Amy Kennedy. (Photo: Nikita Biryukov for the New Jersey Globe)

Kennedy wins second district contest

Teacher-turned-scion will face Van Drew in November

By Nikita Biryukov, July 07 2020 8:00 pm

This article was updated with comment from George Norcross at 8:45 p.m. It was updated again with comment from Kennedy at 11:06 p.m.

Amy Kennedy defeated Brigid Harrison to win the nomination in the state’s most hotly-watched Democratic primary Tuesday, the New Jersey Globe projects.

“What the results tonight clearly show is that people here in South Jersey are ready for change.  We are ready for better paying jobs, protection for our workers and access to affordable health care,” Kennedy said in her victory speech. “We are ready to live in a community where children born anywhere in the district have the same chance of success and where all people, regardless of the color of their skin, have equal access to opportunity and justice.  We are ready to make sure that everyone who works hard still has the right to retire with dignity.”

Harrison has conceded the race.

Kennedy led with 60% of the vote Tuesday. Harrison came in a distant second with 25%, while former congressional staffer Will Cunningham got 11%, and retired FBI agent Robert Turkavage and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis each got 2%

The two well-connected candidates with political dynasties and some of the most prominent Democrats in the state — and the nation — at their backs fought through a bitter and expensive war for the chance retake a seat the party won in 2018 but lost after Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) defected to the Republican party.

Behind Kennedy, a former teacher who has since shifted her focus to mental health advocacy, sat the political dynasty from which she takes her name.

Behind Harrison, a political science professor with long-built ties to New Jersey’s politerati, were South Jersey kingmaker George Norcross, Senate President Steve Sweeney and their wing of the Democratic party.

Sweeney and six of the eight Democratic Chairs in the state’s southern-most district aligned behind Harrison days after the New Jersey Globe first reported that Van Drew told members of his campaign and congressional staffs that he would be would change his party alignment.

The swell of party support later drew criticism from Kennedy and former congressional staffer Will Cunningham, who came in third during the district’s 2018 primary with 16% of the vote to Van Drew’s 57%.

They charged South Jersey Democrats were anointing Harrison as the nominee, as they had done with Van Drew in the previous cycle.

But Kennedy would go on to win the line in Atlantic County, which accounted for 41% of primary voters in 2018. Ocean County Democratic Chairman Wyatt Earp awarded no line, opting to hold an open primary instead.

Democratic infighting had already begun before Kennedy secured her win in Atlantic County, and it only grew more acrimonious as the race wore on.

Harrison attacked Kennedy over $11,400 in contributions from top-ranking executives at Wealthpath, a troubled private correctional healthcare services company that has been the subject of more than 70 wrongful death lawsuits.

The candidate’s husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, sits on the firm’s board.

Kennedy meanwhile savaged Harrison as a candidate handpicked by George Norcross. General Majority PAC, a super PAC run by close allies of the power broker has spent nearly $500,000 boosting Harrison’s campaign.

She also sought to tie Harrison to former Gov. Chris Christie, a move that Democrats say proved effective.

Cunningham outflanked both candidates from the left, running an unabashedly progressive campaign in a district where Van Drew ran just eight point ahead of a pro-Trump Republican candidate who was cut off from most party resources shortly after winning the primary.

U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-North Bergen) and Cory Booker (D-Newark) both endorsed Harrison, and Booker pulled himself off the organizational line in Ocean and Atlantic Counties to Bracket with her, while Gov. Phil Murphy, who has long feuded with the Sweeney-Norcross wing of the party, backed Kennedy in the election’s last weeks.

But on Tuesday, Norcross congratulated Kennedy on her win less than 30 minutes after polls closed and pledged to back her against Van Drew in November.

“Congratulations to Amy Kennedy, who has won a strong victory in today’s primary.  As I said months ago, I look forward to supporting the Democratic nominee in the general election. It is important that we retake the Second Congressional seat and  continue to advance a pro-worker, pro-reform, and pro-civil justice agenda in Washington, DC,” Norcross said. “I look forward to working with Amy, Governor Murphy, Senators Booker and Menendez and every Democrat and every voter in the District who is committed to our shared values in order to take this seat back and build on the Democratic majority in Congress.”

The Kennedy family’s connections and resources helped make the scion into the primary’s top fundraiser.

She had raised $1.4 million by June 17, with much of that money coming from Kennedys their political allies. Harrison had then raised $415,600.69, while Cunningham brought in $155,698.53.

She went into the last weeks of the race with $236,003.93, dwarfing the political science professor’s $9,776.87 and Cunningham’s $55,773.72.

West Cape May Commissioner John Francis and retired FBI Agent Robert Turkavage, who ran for the seat as a Republican in 2018, also sought the Democratic nomination.

Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett sought the nomination but ended her bid on the day of Atlantic County Democrats’ convention.

“My message to Jeff Van Drew tonight is – we have had enough and we demand better.  We have had enough division and hate and selfishness,” Kennedy said. “We have had enough of being abandoned and mistreated and forgotten.  We have had enough of you and Donald Trump.”

Vote tallies do not include uncounted mail-in ballots received by Tuesday, late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. Tuesday, provisional ballots that won’t be counted for at least a week and mail-in ballots that were disqualified but may be cured at a later date.

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