There is no clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s seventh district, where seven candidates are competing for the chance to take on five-term Republican Leonard Lance.
Linda Weber has secured organization lines in Somerset and Essex counties, and she appears to be the favorite in Union County – though the terrain is extraordinarily fluid right now as Democrats focus on a fight to replace Jerry Green as county chairman.
The problem for right now is the perception that she is struggling to raise money. She has raised $318,484 – but just $89,426 in the 4th quarter of last year. Her accelerated burn rate of campaign funds – she only has $132,590 cash-on-hand – is leaving many Democrats concerned that Weber can’t keep up with others in the race who are raising more and spending less.
Weber’s next big test comes on Sunday, when Hunterdon County Democrats will endorse a candidate at their convention. County Chair Arlene Quiñones Perez is backing Weber, but Hunterdon Democrats are a less malleable than other counties and the personal endorsement of the leader does not assure Weber a win.
Tom Malinowski, who served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of State in the Obama administration, moved back to New Jersey to seek the seat. Some view Hunterdon as his opportunity to win a key county endorsement. Malinowski is new to the district – he grew up in Princeton – but his aunt, Anne Clark Martindell, represented parts of Hunterdon in the New Jersey Senate forty years ago.
National Democrats appear to favor Malinowski, although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has provided a pre-primary endorsement as they did in the eleventh district. Malinowski had an impressive 4th quarter, raising $528,471, with $446,082 cash-on-hand. He is tapping his personal network, with contributors like Philip Roth, Caroline Kennedy, and Barbra Streisand.
Still, the perception that the DCC is pushing Malinowski is causing some resentment in New Jersey, especially since he has yet to land a county endorsement. Malinowski clearly has brain power, but he’s still a little stiff and awkward on the campaign trail.
Union County is not expected to award the line until after the special election for county chairman on February 21 between acting chair Colleen Mahr and State Sen. Nicholas Scutari. While no formal endorsements have been made, the conventional wisdom is that Mahr and her chief ally, State Sen. Joe Cryan, are for Weber. Scutari as stayed out of the race, although many insiders believe he is leaning toward Malinowski.
Some insiders believe Webber has an edge among municipal chairs in Union County – she needs seven of the thirteen to get the line – but that could change if Scutari wins.
Lisa Mandelblatt, who bills herself as a working mom from Westfield, has raised the most money: $659,023 – nearly half of that self-funded. She has $414,239 left, but sources suggest that she’s not done writing checks. Self-funding is not an issue in New Jersey for candidates of either party.
The Mandelblatt campaign is not expected to win any organization lines, but her campaign doesn’t think she needs them. They say she’ll have ample funds in the stretch to reach Democratic primary voters.
Democratic insiders give high marks to two young lawyers who seem to be impressing party leaders at candidate forums. Goutam Jois and Scott Salmon have also demonstrated some early fundraising prowess. Jois has raised $282,410 – including $50,000 of his own money – and Salmon has raised $94,126.
Others are ahead of them in the contest right now, but multi-candidate primaries are often unpredictable. If Weber, Malinowski and Mandelblatt wind up going negative against each other, there could be an opportunity for Jois or Salmon to move up.
Peter Jacob, who won 43% against Lance in 2016, is running again. He has raised $100,756, but he’s suffering from Weberitis – an incredibly fast burn rate; he has just $27,102 left.
The newest candidate in the race – he got in late last year – is David Pringle, a prominent environmental activist who is making his first bid for public office. Pringle got in too late to report any 4th quarter contributions.
Pringle’s problem is that Democrats – and a good part of the New Jersey environmental community – remember that he endorsed Republican Chris Christie against Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009.
In 2016, Somerset represented 35% of the total votes cast in the Democratic primary, followed by Union (28%), Hunterdon (18%), Morris (12%), Warren (5%) and Essex (2%).
After ten years in the House, Lance is considered vulnerable. His district went for Hillary Clinton in 2017, albeit by just one percentage point, and mid-term elections are historically tough for the party out of the White House.