Establishment candidates cruise to victory in New Jersey congressional primaries

COLTS NECK, N.J. — New Jersey’s political establishment prevailed in Tuesday’s congressional primary elections, with most House incumbents and organization-backed candidates defeating challengers from their parties’ flanks.

A number of long-shot GOP hopefuls were inspired by former President Donald Trump and had some iteration of “America First” in their ballot slogans. The phrase has a long history in U.S. politics but in recent years has been associated with Trump.

Trump was largely absent from the races, however. Though he promised to back a Republican primary challenger to Rep. Chris Smith in the 4th District after the congressman voted for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, he never followed through. The former president didn’t engage in any New Jersey campaigns, save for an endorsement of Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew in South Jersey’s 2nd District. Van Drew, who easily defeated two primary challengers on Tuesday, also supported the infrastructure bill, but won over Trump when he switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 2020.

Smith, a 42-year incumbent and staunch abortion opponent, easily defeated two challengers from the right, including Mike Crispi, a conservative podcaster. Without his help, Crispi enlisted several Trump loyalists, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, political operative Roger Stone and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to aid his campaign.

“Infrastructure was what it was all about. Nothing more, nothing less. Trump signed six of my major laws while he was president,” Smith said during a Monmouth County Republican event Tuesday evening in Colts Neck. “I get along with the [former] president.”

The typically low-key Smith was particularly annoyed by Crispi’s campaign.

“He has lied repeatedly. At first I was told to ‘just ignore it.’ I finally got to the point where I wasn’t going to ignore it anymore and I set the record straight,” Smith told the crowd. “He even showed up at our home last night and put a sign on our lawn. That is so bush league and sophomoric. … Hopefully he never runs for anything and nobody in this organization ever supports him.”

Crispi responded that Smith was “angry because someone challenged him for the first time in 42 years” and declared he “will be back to ensure [Smith] is defeated.”

“He talks tough now after the fact. Smith is a disgraceful back bencher who would have lost long ago if it were not for the New Jersey party line system,” Crispi said, referring to a ballot structure unique to New Jersey that gives organization-backed candidates favorable placement on the ballot.

Tuesday’s low-turnout primary set the stage for a November general election that has Democrats nationally fretting as they try to maintain their slim control of the House.

In New Jersey, just one Democratic incumbent — Rep. Tom Malinowski, who easily beat back a nominal primary challenge in the 7th District — is considered vulnerable. Democrats hold a 10-2 advantage in New Jersey’s House delegation and won the redistricting process late last year, installing a map that gives most of their previously-vulnerable incumbents, except for Malinowski, more comfortable districts.

But with gas prices hitting $5 a gallon and Biden continuing to suffer in public approval ratings, New Jersey Republicans are confident that districts that normally would be considered safe for Democrats could flip.

Former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., who came within a point of ousting Malinowski in 2020, will face him again in November after defeating six other Republicans on Tuesday, most of whom ran to his right and ended up splitting the more conservative vote. Kean, a moderate whose father remains the most popular New Jersey governor in living memory, ran a primary campaign in which he took as few risks as possible, refusing to debate opponents and engaging in few media interviews.

The Malinowski-Kean rematch will likely be New Jersey’s marquee race in November, with the Republican rated a slight favorite after Democrats redrew the 7th District to be more favorable to Republicans — and because Malinowski faces a House ethics inquiry regarding his late reporting of stock trades.

The district includes all or part of six counties in the central and northwestern parts of the state.

In the Republican primary in South Jersey-dominated District 3, Bob Healey, a former punk rock band frontman who runs his family’s yacht building company, appeared poised to defeat far-right activist Ian Smith, who earned some fame and frequent appearances on Fox News after he refused to comply with state Covid restrictions to shut down the gym he co-owns. Also running, though not considered a major factor in the race was Nicholas Ferrara, a Realtor and adherent to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The contest between Healey and Smith was particularly heated, with Smith criticizing some of the controversial lyrics in Healey’s music. But Smith’s controversies far outweighed Healey’s. Smith did prison time for vehicular homicide after driving drunk as a 20-year-old college student and slamming into a car driven by a 19-year-old, killing him. Smith was arrested for DUI in March of this year, though he said he was not intoxicated. He refused to take a breath test, suggesting the traffic stop was a conspiracy orchestrated by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

“I may have sung in my past about killing someone, Ian actually did kill someone,” Healey said during a debate last month.

Healy will face Democratic incumbent Andy Kim in November.

Republicans feel so optimistic about the political environment that they’re running Monmouth County Commissioner Sue Kiley against incumbent Frank Pallone in the normally safely Democratic 6th District in Central Jersey. Kiley easily prevailed over two opponents Tuesday, including Rik Mehta, the GOP’s 2020 nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Cory Booker. Pallone’s recent Republican challengers have come from comparative obscurity.

In other races, two establishment-backed Democrats who are the sons of major New Jersey political figures faced spirited challenges from the left, but easily beat them back.

Many progressives groaned when Democrats from North Jersey’s urban political machines immediately got behind Robert Menendez Jr., the son of New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator and political novice, to succeed the retiring Rep. Albio Sires in the 8th District. But Menendez easily defeated two primary opponents, David Ocampo Grajales and Ane Roseborough-Eberhard. The district is so Democratic that Menendez’s victory Tuesday virtually ensures he will win the seat his father held for 13 years before moving up to the Senate.

In the Newark-centered 10th District, Democratic incumbent Donald Payne Jr., who took over the seat after his father’s death in 2012, easily defeated Imani Oakley, who worked briefly as a staffer for Booker, and Akil Khalfani, a sociology professor at Essex County College.

Two races were too close to call.

In North Jersey’s mostly suburban 11th District, there was no winner projected late Tuesday in the GOP primary to take on Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill. Attorney Paul DeGroot, a former prosecutor backed by the Passaic County Republican Organization, held a slim lead over Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen with 76 percent of precincts reporting. Selen is backed by the Republican organizations in Morris and Essex counties.

And in North Jersey’s 5th District, where several Republicans are vying to take on Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, unsuccessful 2020 GOP nominee Frank Pallotta held a nearly 4-point lead over his nearest rival, Nick De Gregorio, with 82 percent of the vote counted. Gottheimer appears to prefer Pallotta as an opponent, since his campaign and his allies have sent out mailers tying the Republican to Trump in a move most read as an attempt to boost his campaign.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-08 05:57:21 -0700