Former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) sought to derail the endorsement of Brigid Callahan Harrison by South Jersey Democratic leaders in a bid to seek support from Democratic powerbroker George Norcross for the fledgling campaign of his wife, Amy Kennedy.
Text messages show that Kennedy tried to enlist the help of Steve Ayscue, a Democratic strategist and member of Norcross’ inner circle in a bid to become the candidate of the party establishment.
“First he reached out to me through an intermediary and then Patrick called me directly and we had a very long and pleasant conversation,” Ayscue told the New Jersey Globe. “We exchanged text messages where he asked for my help dealing with Brigid Harrison’s momentum on endorsements from key South Jersey Democrats.”
The first text between the two came on December 18 when Kennedy texted Ayscue a copy of a New Jersey Globe story reporting that Senate President Steve Sweeney and six Democratic county chairmen had endorsed Harrison just days after Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) told his congressional staff that he was switching parties.
“This is why I need your help,” Kennedy told Ayscue, followed by a smiley face.
The next morning, after a Washington reporter said that Van Drew refused to rule out running again as a Democrat, Ayscue texted the tweet to Kennedy.
“My sense would be that you’d only want one person against him in the primary as opposed to dividing the anti-vote,” Kennedy told wrote back. “Bridget (sic) has sold herself as a centrist and being bets political profile to win general, however that may be advantage to Amy if she is ‘true Kennedy Democrat.’ Thoughts?”
Ayscue told Kennedy that he disagreed.
“A traditional liberal candidacy in this district doesn’t work. Like other, more rural and blue collar parts of the country, the shift to conservatism is quite real,” Ayscue said. “This district has the highest poverty in the state, highest opioid addiction rate, highest unemployment, highest obesity rate. Yet it trends Democratic.”
Ayscue explained to Kennedy that “some of these blue collar towns proudly elected Dems at the national level…now the more upscale communities have become our constituency.” He said that “Hillary got clobbered” in South Jersey towns with Democratic mayors and governing bodies.
“Got it,” Kennedy responded. “In (Rhode Island) this was opposite.”
Later that afternoon, Ayscue got back to Kennedy with an update on the 2nd district primary race.
“Had a good long chat with George this afternoon. Told me a few things… DCCC committed to Harrison, so it would be tough for me to engage,” he told him. “He thinks Amy is a very attractive candidate and wished he had known of her interest in running 2 years ago when we tried to take out State Senator Chris Brown in LD-2. Would have been a very different outcome.”
Ayscue also told Kennedy that Norcross felt Amy Kennedy “is better suited for the Atlantic County end of it as opposed to Cape (May) and others.”
“Would like to keep the line of communication open and discuss the future,” Ayscue stated.
Kennedy responded with a thumbs up emoji.
About 90 minutes later, Kennedy wrote back to Ayscue.
“I still think we have a shot with DCC (because) I used to be chair and Nancy (Pelosi) is a longtime family friend,” Kennedy said. “For this reason, Sweeney must have rushed endorsement of Bridget (sic) so it was prior to George (meeting) with (Nancy Pelosi),” Kennedy said.
It was in that text exchange that Kennedy expressed some frustration with the way New Jersey primaries work.
“We appreciate how vital party line is but also how much people may be growing weary of this process,” Kennedy said.
After Norcross allies doubled-down on Harrison, Amy Kennedy became a staunch critic of the South Jersey Democratic machine, even running a Game of Thrones-inspired digital ad featuring Norcross as the central character.
“George Norcross is twisting arms and rigging the primary with back room deals for Brigid Harrison, the same way he did for Jeff Van Drew,” said Josh Roesch, Kennedy’s campaign manager. And we know how well that turned out.”
Ayscue said he was troubled by the Kennedys sudden revulsion toward Norcross after seeking his political and professional support in the past.
“If we’re such bad people, why would Patrick seek to cozy up to us? This is the same Patrick Kennedy who put on a full court press to get George’s help promoting a health care company Patrick’s family owns and in which Patrick holds a financial interest,” Ayscue said. “Patrick and his family have also enjoyed free rides on George’s airplane. Guess they forgot about that, huh?”
According to Ayscue, the Norcross family were loyal friends and supporters of the Kennedys. George Norcross’ late father backed Patrick Kennedy’s father, Ted Kennedy, in his 1980 Democratic presidential bid against Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries.
“All these texts show is someone doing due diligence to assess the landscape when his wife was exploring a run for office, like anyone would do,” sad Josh Roesch, Kennedy’s campaign manager. “Ayscue did most of the texting trying to keep Amy from running and saying she can’t win as a real Democrat. Now we know why Ayscue and Norcross anointed Brigid— she’s not a Democrat… she’s a Republican in Democrat’s clothing just like Jeff Van Drew. Hope Steve gave Brigid better political advice than that for the money she paid his firm, Checkmate…a slogan which may soon be applied to his client’s desperate, losing campaign.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee accused Patrick Kennedy of causing “headaches” for his wife’s campaign.
“Kennedy has pitched herself as an outsider running against the George Norcross Democratic machine in South Jersey, but in newly revealed text messages Kennedy’s only doing that because her husband tried and failed to win Norcross’s support for her congressional run,” said Michael McAdams, an NRCC spokesman. “What a fraud.”
This story was updated at 8:18 AM. with comment from the Kennedy campaign and at 10:20 AM with comment from the NRCC.