Tuesday’s congressional primaries will set the stage in what could become one of the most competitive states in November’s midterm elections.
New Jersey, a deep-blue state that nevertheless has five of its 12 seats in the House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, is a top target for Democrats, who are hoping to flip at least three of the GOP-held seats in their effort to retake control of the chamber.
Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Rodney Frelinghuysen, two Republican incumbents who have held their districts without serious challenges from the right for more than two decades, are retiring, while a third GOP incumbent — Rep. Leonard Lance — who for the last decade has had to worry more about primary challenges than the general election, is considered particularly vulnerable.
These once reliably GOP districts, two of which are dominated by wealthy, well-educated suburbanites, are suddenly up for grabs.
The state’s primary season started last year with a flood of Democratic House candidates announcing their intentions unusually early, eager to capitalize on what they saw as a coming anti-Trump blue wave.
As the season progressed, New Jersey’s county Democratic machines flexed their muscles, picking as front-runners well-funded candidates who, thanks to their cash advantage and favorable ballot placement that come with being endorsed by the county party, have a huge edge heading into Tuesday’s primary.
In all, 49 candidates are running in the state‘s 12 congressional districts.
On the Democratic side, some barely-funded long-shot liberals are hoping to harness grass-roots energy to defeat organization-backed candidates, some of whom have been raising money hand over fist.
On the GOP side, voters are facing a choice between pro-Trump, down-the-line conservatives or more establishment Republicans some feel have a better shot in traditionally Republican districts where President Donald Trump’s unpopularity threatens to loosen the party’s grip.
In the Senate, both incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez and his likely Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, are also facing primary challenges, but neither of their opponents has won any organizational support nor raised much money.
Here’s a rundown of New Jersey’s most interesting primaries:
2nd Congressional District
The most spirited Democratic primary is in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional district, where the 72-year-old LoBiondo — arguably the most moderate Republican in the New Jersey delegation — is retiring.
Democratic leaders in all eight counties that make up the 2nd District have endorsed state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), a conservative who has voted against many pieces of liberal legislation, including raising the minimum wage. Van Drew’s pro-gun voting record has earned him a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, but has drawn the most ire from activists in the district.
Even if Van Drew had just one primary opponent, he would be the heavy favorite because in New Jersey, support by county political leaders typically means favorable placement on the ballot and alignment with the party’s chosen candidates for higher and lower office.
But Van Drew has three primary opponents, all running to his left: Tanzie Youngblood, Will Cunningham and Nate Kleinman. Van Drew has vastly out-raised all of his rivals, taking in about $632,000 while none of his rivals had cracked $100,000 as of mid-May.
The three have gone after Van Drew repeatedly, especially on his firearms record, which the pro-gun control group Moms Demand Action may have helped blunt when, in a controversial move, it awarded him its label as a “gun sense candidate.” Cunningham has won the backing of the Brady Campaign, another pro-gun control group.
“Our children are dying, and innocent Americans are being slaughtered because so many of our politicians — including my NRA-A rated opponent Jeff Van Drew — refuse to stand up to the gun lobby and do what is right: pass sensible gun control measures that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those wishing our communities harm,” Cunningham said in a statement attached to the endorsement.
With three candidates running to Van Drew’s left, they threaten to split the liberal vote, making Van Drew nearly a sure bet to win the party’s nomination.
The Republican primary in the 2nd District is a messier affair. Hirsh Singh, a 33-year-old engineer from South Jersey, has the support of most county organizations, having won over party leaders with the expectation he would be a well-funded candidate.
It made sense at the time, since when Singh ran for the GOP nomination for governor last year, he had a $1 million loan courtesy of his father. But that loan was allowed only because of a loophole in state election law that permitted family donors to exceed contribution limits if they live in the same household. That same loophole doesn’t exist for federal elections, and as of late May, Singh had raised only about $130,000 — $45,000 of which was from his own pocket.
“A lot of people supported him based upon the personal wealth he pledged was going to be brought into this campaign,” Atlantic County GOP Chairman Keith Davis said.
Singh remains the favorite because he has most of the GOP lines. But he has several opponents: former Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi, former Atlantic City Councilman Seth Grossman and former FBI agent Rob Turkavage.
The Russia investigation has played into the race, with Singh saying the president should fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Turkavage called that “reckless.”
7th Congressional District
Lance, who has represented the Central Jersey district since 2009, is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the state — running in a well-heeled suburban district Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016 . Lance has primary opponents, but the race has been quiet.
On the Democratic side, the party machine is fully behind Tom Malinowski, who has the coveted party line in all six counties that make up the district.
Seven candidates initially filed to run for the Democratic nomination. But as internal power struggles over the chairmanship of Union County — which makes up a large part of the district — settled, so did the field. Now, Malinowski has just two rivals: Peter Jacob and Goutam Jois, an attorney and stand-up comedian.
Jacob, a social worker, was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2016, when the local and national Democratic organizations didn’t put significant effort into defeating Lance. This year, Jacob said, said the party machine is stacking the odds for Malinowski.
“In New Jersey, we have a quasi-democracy,” he said. “I hope to see a day in New Jersey where there’s no such thing as lines. Allow people to receive their ballot and go out to decide who to vote for instead of having the party elites decide for them.”
Malinowski said he wasn’t the favorite to begin with. Different Democratic factions backed different candidates before the field settled.
“We had seven candidates, and we all worked hard to get the support of the rank-and-file members of the party,” Malinowski said. “One of us was able to do that in all six counties, and here we are.”
Malinowski said he doesn’t believe the grass-roots liberal energy on display so early in the process will dissipate after the primary.
“This is not some amorphous movement on Facebook,” he said. “This is a very pragmatic movement aimed at electing candidates that better represent the values of voters in New Jersey.“
11th Congressional District
After the 2nd District, Democrats believe the 11th is most ripe to flip from Republican control.
Both the Democrats and Republicans are holding primaries, and the winners will square off to fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Frelinghuysen, a 24-year incumbent patrician with New Jersey political roots that date back to the nation’s founding.
Mikie Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor and Navy helicopter pilot from Montclair, has the backing of all four county organizations in the district. She has three primary rivals: Tamara Harris, Mark Washburne and Alison Heslin.
Sherrill, whose unusual resume makes her a dream candidate for Democratic leaders, is also a fundraising juggernaut, having raised $2.6 million as of mid-May. Harris is the only Sherrill rival who has raised a significant amount of money, but $217,000 of the $508,000 she’s raised has been from her own pocket.
Sherrill came up through the grass-roots movement that was protesting Frelinghuysen’s refusal to host town halls, so even though she has party backing, it’s not easy to paint her as an establishment Democrat.
“I’m amazed by the support this campaign has received from residents. I think we have been so successful because, for over a year, I have been going to diners, living rooms and holding town halls to listen to residents. The grassroots momentum has been building since last May,” Sherrill said in a statement. “Our community knows how important it is to have a representative focused on our values.”
Her biggest vulnerability had been her residency. Sherrill lived just a few blocks outside the district at the beginning of the campaign, but has since moved into it.
Harris says she’s less timid than Sherrill on many of the anti-Trump issues roiling the district. For instance, when a Mendham councilman shared a pro-Trump Facebook post that compared undocumented immigrants to raccoons in need of extermination, Harris showed up to the next council meeting to demand his resignation.
“Everyone says Donald Trump is horrible. We’re living in Trump times, and how do we deal with this?” Harris said. “I actually stood with residents in Mendham when they had a deputy mayor make very disparaging remarks and actually spoke at the meeting — and he actually stepped down at the end of that meeting. … [Sherrill] was not there.”
On the Republican side, the candidates run the ideological gamut.
The district’s biggest Republican county, Morris, does not have a “line,” adding an element of uncertainty to the race. Assemblyman Jay Webber, however, is largely considered the front-runner since he’s a Morris County resident and has a deep conservative voting record in the stater Legislature.
Although hesitant to publicly embrace Trump during the 2016 election, Webber has cast himself as the true Republican in the race and has hit Trump-esque notes in emphasizing his opposition to tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants who grew up in New Jersey.
Tony Ghee, an Army reserve JAG officer and bank executive, is Webber’s most high-profile opponent and has the support of the Essex and Passaic County Republican parties. Ghee, however, registered as a Republican only the day before declaring his candidacy — leading Webber to question his credentials, and allege Ghee voted for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton after Ghee wouldn’t say for whom he voted.
Ghee, who is African-American, argues that in a district where political allegiances seem to be shifting, Republicans need a different type of candidate to succeed.
Peter De Neufville, a wealthy former chemical company executive and naval reserve officer, is also running, and has focused his campaign literature on attacking Webber’s record. Martin Hewitt is also running as a self-described “liberal Republican.”
On Friday, Ghee claimed De Neufville told him he could help Ghee become chairman of a local parks commission in exchange for dropping out of the race and endorsing De Neufville.
In a statement, De Neufville accused Ghee of “distorting and mischaracterizing a meeting we had to discuss the campaign.”
De Neufville didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Patrick Allocco, a former concert promoter who was held in Angola by its government for 49 days because rapper Nas did not show up to a planned gig, is also seeking the GOP nomination.
“It wasn’t until the wrongful imprisonment of my son and I in Angola that I realized just how little our government really listens to the average person,” Allocco wrote on his campaign website. Allocco put forward the most unorthodox idea of the campaign: Allow the district’s voters to tell him how he should vote through online polls.
5th Congressional District
In North Jersey’s 5th District, two Republicans are vying to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, whose moderate voting record hasn’t inspired a challenge from the left.
Gottheimer’s two Republican opponents, however, are tripping over each other to demonstrate loyalty to Trump, who narrowly won the district in 2016 despite Gottheimer unseating conservative Republican Scott Garrett.
Steve Lonegan — a perennial candidate who served three terms as mayor of Bogota in Bergen County and has run unsuccessfully for Congress in two different districts, twice for governor and once for Senate — was a major backer of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and tried to deny Trump the GOP nomination at the Republican National Convention. But he kicked off his campaign last summer saying he wants to “make America great again.”
Thanks largely to self-loans, Lonegan’s fundraising has dwarfed that of rival John McCann, a lawyer from Bergen County. But McCann has used his limited resources to cut an ad that highlights Trump calling Lonegan a “loser” during the 2016 campaign, and has brought in former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka — a so-called terrorism expert whose credentials are doubted by many in the field — to help raise money for him.
McCann has the county “line” from the two parties that award it in the district, but his lack of resources and Lonegan’s long history as a conservative activist have made him the favorite in the race.