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What to watch for in New Jersey’s congressional primaries

Hordes of Republicans vie to flip Dem seats; several incumbents try to fend off challengers

By Joey Fox, June 03 2022 4:54 pm

This Tuesday, June 7, New Jerseyans will head to the polls to vote in primary elections for the state’s 12 congressional districts – and without the presidency or either U.S. Senate seat up for election, the House represents the top of the ballot this year.

Primary voters will determine whether Republicans nominate establishment figures or hardline conservatives to take on the state’s most vulnerable Democrats; whether a spate of intra-party challengers are able to make entrenched incumbents break a sweat; and whether anyone can overcome the power of the county line, that fabled New Jersey institution that gives party-endorsed candidates a preferred spot on the primary ballot.

The state is hosting a total of 15 contested congressional primaries, some of them highly competitive and others sleepy and forgotten. Here’s a look at every one.

Key races

3rd district – Republican
Candidates: Bob Healey Jr., Ian Smith, Nicholas Ferrara

Bob Healey Jr., a former punk rocker-turned-executive of his family’s yacht manufacturing company, is an intriguing candidate for Republicans in the potentially competitive 3rd district. In order to face Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), however, Healey will have to get past someone who blows “intriguing” out of the water: Ian Smith, a bombastic, bearded, DUI-arrested gym owner who first gained fame for resisting Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic measures.

Healey has the endorsement of every Republican county party – Smith didn’t even try for any of them – and massively outraised Smith, $1.16 million to $150,000. In all traditional respects, Healey is the frontrunner. Yet everything about Smith’s candidacy is a major wild card, and it’s possible that in a low-turnout midterm primary, his strategy of running hard to the right on Covid and other issues will pay off.

National Republicans seem to want Healey to succeed, adding him to their list of “On The Radar” candidates worth supporting. They’re more likely than not to get their way, but Smith still has room to pull off an upset – and, in doing so, give Kim an easier path to re-election.

Rating: Lean Healey

5th district – Republican
Candidates: Nick De Gregorio, Frank Pallotta, Sab Skenderi, Fred Schneiderman (ended campaign but will still appear on ballot)

Investment banker Frank Pallotta has done it once before. In the 2020 Republican primary, Pallotta faced 2018 nominee John McCann; McCann had the Bergen County line, but Pallotta ran up the score in the 5th district’s exurban counties and won 52-32%. Now, after losing that year’s general election to Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), Pallotta’s back for a second try, and this time he’ll face U.S. Marine veteran Nick De Gregorio.

Like McCann, De Gregorio has the Bergen County line. Unlike McCann, he has a major fundraising advantage – Pallotta has yet to self-fund the way he did two years ago – and hasn’t bled support from Bergen County Republicans like McCann did. What’s more, Bergen County now accounts for around 62% of the district’s Republican primary voters after redistricting, versus 51% under the old lines.

Pallotta still has the support of the Passaic and Sussex Republican organizations, however, and likely retains quite a bit of name recognition from his well-funded 2020 bid. He also has the support of none other than Josh Gottheimer, who has sent out mailers “attacking” Pallotta for being too close to Trump in order to help him win the primary.

National Republicans also seem to think that De Gregorio would be the stronger nominee, and have added him to their list of promising candidates. But Pallotta has proven once before that he can’t be counted out, and he may have it in him to beat the Bergen County line again.

Rating: Toss-up

11th district – Republican
Candidates: Tayfun Selen, Paul DeGroot, Toby Anderson, Ruth McAndrew, Alex Halter

While Republicans have heavily focused on the 3rd, 5th, and 7th districts, the 11th district, represented by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), has languished in relative obscurity. That may be due to simple partisan math; Joe Biden would have carried the redrawn district by 17 points in 2020, making it the kind of seat that would only be competitive in a massive red wave.

In the absence of any real national focus on beating Sherrill, the Republican field that has developed is an odd one. The frontrunner, Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen, has a good pedigree and could represent a strong challenger to Sherrill. But he’s struggled with fundraising and only barely won the Morris County Republican convention against Republican state committeeman Larry Casha (who dropped out after losing the convention).

That’s left an opening, albeit a small one, for former Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Paul DeGroot and U.S. Army veteran Toby Anderson. DeGroot has the line in Passaic County, and either could eke out a win if Selen proves weaker than expected. 

Rating: Lean Selen

Races to keep an eye on

4th district – Republican
Candidates: Chris Smith (inc.), Mike Crispi, Steve Gray, Mike Blasi (ended campaign but will still appear on ballot)

Donald Trump’s anger is a fickle thing. In November 2021, he sent off a furious missive excoriating Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester) for voting in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, saying that a “good and smart America First Republican patriot” needed to take the 21-term congressman on. “You will have my backing,” he said.

And Smith did indeed draw a primary challenge from a semi-prominent Trump enthusiast, podcaster Mike Crispi, who has the backing of Trumpworld heroes like consultant Roger Stone and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. What didn’t materialize was the promised Trump endorsement, without which Crispi has had trouble raising money and getting local endorsements.

Smith, who would be Dean of the House if his last name came earlier in the alphabet, is well-respected in New Jersey Republican circles as both a consistent conservative and an effective representative. With a hefty campaign warchest and both county parties on his side, Smith is the odds-on favorite for another term.

Rating: Likely Smith

6th district – Republican
Candidates: Sue Kiley, Rik Mehta, Tom Toomey

The contest to take on longtime Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) is a fill-in-the-blank of Republican primaries. Establishment frontrunner: Monmouth County Commissioner Sue Kiley. Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official and 2020 Senate nominee Rik Mehta. The third person who simply never caught on: former Republican National Committee staffer Tom Toomey.

Though Mehta may have some goodwill left over from his 2020 campaign, Kiley has the county lines and a major fundraising edge, and there’s not much reason to think she’s in danger of losing. 

Rating: Likely Kiley

7th district – Republican
Candidates: Tom Kean Jr., Phil Rizzo, Erik Peterson, John Isemann, John Flora, Sterling Schwab, Kevin Dorlon

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), a moderate who narrowly lost to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) in 2020, could have been vulnerable in a primary this year had he faced a single conservative challenger. Instead, he’ll face six.

The three most prominent are 2021 gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo, Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin), and businessman John Isemann; Rizzo and Peterson are both running hard to the right, while Isemann is campaigning more as a youthful outsider. Also crowding the ballot are Fredon Mayor John Flora, U.S. Navy veteran Sterling Irwin Schwab, and licensed public works contractor Kevin Dorlon.

State Republicans are nervous enough about Kean’s right flank that they’ve sent mailers touting his alignment with the Trump agenda, something Kean will no doubt distance himself from once the general election arrives. With a huge fundraising advantage and every county line, though, Kean will be nigh-impossible to beat, and the best any of his six challengers can realistically aim for is second place.

Rating: Likely Kean

8th district – Democratic
Candidates: Rob Menendez, David Ocampo Grajales, Ane Roseborough-Eberhard

An open congressional seat? In a safely Democratic district? Where a huge number of ambitious politicians and activists already live? Sounds like a perfect opportunity for…a low-profile primary where the son of a U.S. senator waltzes to victory.

Port Authority Commissioner Rob Menendez, the progeny of Senator Bob Menendez, became the frontrunner for the 8th district as soon as news broke of Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York)’s retirement, and quickly got the backing of Gov. Phil Murphy and the Hudson County Democratic Party. Since then, Menendez has been on a glide path, garnering endorsements left and right while letting Hudson Dems do the dirty work of kicking some of his primary opponents off the ballot.

Two challengers remain: healthcare startup director David Ocampo Grajales and Amistad Commission member Ane Roseborough-Eberhard, neither of whom have gotten many endorsements or raised the kind of money they’d need to compete with fundraising behemoth Menendez. Unless anti-establishment sentiment runs far higher than expected, there will soon be a second Menendez in Congress.

Rating: Likely Menendez

10th district – Democratic
Candidates: Donald Payne Jr. (inc.), Imani Oakley, Akil Khalfani

After a bad 2021 for Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-Newark) – surely he never imagined his boxer shorts would become a major news story – it looks like he’ll have a better 2022, with the congressman set to win renomination against two opponents.

One of those opponents, Imani Oakley, has raised an impressive amount of money for a newcomer running off the line. But Oakley has a troubled relationship with the New Jersey left – Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-East Orange) and the New Jersey Working Families Party, two guiding lights for New Jersey progressives, are both backing Payne – which leaves her with few allies and little chance of victory.

Ironically, the main thing Oakley’s challenge may have accomplished is making Payne a more formidable candidate. Gone are the days when Payne would skate by year after year; he raised $390,000 last quarter, his largest fundraising quarter ever, and will likely now be better prepared for any future primary challengers who may come along.

Other contested races

1st district – Democratic and Republican
Democratic candidates: Donald Norcross (inc.), Mario DeSantis
Republican candidates: Claire Gustafson, Damon Galdo

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and his 2020 Republican opponent, Claire Gustafson, each face minor opposition: teacher Mario DeSantis in the Democratic primary and carpenter Damon Galdo in the Republican primary. Neither underdog candidacy has gone anywhere, and Norcross and Gustafson should be set for a rematch this November.

Ratings: Solid Norcross and Gustafson

2nd district – Democratic and Republican
Democratic candidates: Tim Alexander, Carolyn Rush
Republican candidates: Jeff Van Drew (inc.), John Barker, Sean Pignatelli

Two years after holding a high-profile Democratic primary to see who would take on Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) in 2020 – and four years after recruiting Van Drew himself to run for Congress – South Jersey Democrats seem to have settled this year on civil rights lawyer Tim Alexander. One other Democrat, Carolyn Rush, is also running, but she doesn’t have any county lines or notable supporters to back her up.

As for Van Drew, his party switch from Republican to Democrat in 2019 theoretically left him open to a primary challenge; he was, after all, a Cory Booker supporter before he was a Donald Trump acolyte. Yet after Van Drew beat a serious primary opponent 82-18% in 2020, no prominent Republican was interested in taking the plunge this year, and the congressman faces only minor candidates John Barker and Sean Pignatelli. He, like Alexander, is safe on Tuesday.

Ratings: Solid Alexander and Van Drew

3rd district – Democratic
Candidates: Andy Kim (inc.), Reuven Hendler

Reuven Hendler, running an anti-establishment bid against Andy Kim, claims Kim isn’t left-wing enough. That’s an odd argument to make against an already-progressive representative from a swing seat, and Kim will win easily.

Rating: Solid Kim

7th district – Democratic
Candidates: Tom Malinowski (inc.), Roger Bacon

Tom Malinowski is undoubtedly in deep trouble this November. He’s not in any danger in the primary election, however, since he faces only Trump-supporting perennial candidate Roger Bacon. Bacon already defied the odds once by getting onto the ballot at all; now it’s a question of whether he can break 5% of the vote.

Rating: Solid Malinowski

10th district – Republican
Candidates: David Pinckney, Garth Stewart

Two Republicans are seeking to represent Newark in Congress, David Pinckney and Garth Stewart; Pinckney has the county lines and will likely win. But given that a Republican flipping a Newark-based district is about as likely as Cory Booker eating a double cheeseburger, the result of this primary won’t matter all that much.

Rating: Likely Pinckney 

Uncontested races

Five incumbent Democrats – Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson), Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) – will be renominated unopposed.

Joining them in the uncontested column are four challengers in unlikely-to-be-competitive districts: Democrat Matt Jenkins in the 4th district, Republican Marcos Arroyo in the 8th district, Republican Billy Prempeh in the 9th district, and Republican Darius Mayfield in the 12th district. That means two general election contests, those in the 9th and 12th districts, have already been determined.

This story was updated at 2:17 p.m. on June 7 to correct an error: Larry Casha has not endorsed any candidate in the 11th district Republican primary.

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