The state of New Jersey’s congressional primaries

By David WildsteinApril 19 2022

New Jersey Globe

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

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For a group of mostly-unknown New Jersey congressional candidates with no significant political base, sluggish fundraising puts them in an unlikely pray-for-a-miracle box just seven weeks before the June 7 Democratic and Republican primary elections.

It’s a steep uphill climb for any candidate to win off the line, but the idea of doing so with no money, or significant name identification or the presence of real, organized grassroots support, is virtually impossible.

People may not like to hear it, but you can’t win an election inside a social media bubble; you need money to persuade real voters.  The decline of old-fashioned daily newspapers offers limited opportunities for underdog candidates to gain attention without lines, money and a base.

There are some examples of candidates prevailing without dominating organization lines, like Bill Bradley beating organization candidate Richard Leone, the former state treasurer, in the 1978 Democratic U.S. Senate primary.  But Bradley had money and Brobdingnagian name identification as a New York Knicks basketball star.

The other reality is that the first three months of someone’s candidacy is typically indicative of their fundraising virility.  That’s when friends and family give.  It’s hard to depend on a late surge unless a national political figure were to make a late endorsement.  And watching a candidate’s early burn rate is important.

Here are some takeaways on the state of House races in New Jersey right now:

1.  When you’re running for office in New Jersey, getting on the ballot is the easiest part

Administrative law judges took the first crack at winnowing the field last week when they tossed six candidates from the ballot for their inability to obtain 200 valid signatures on their nominating petitions.

Four of the six –  Republicans Tricia Flanagan (NJ-4) Robert Shapiro (NJ-4) and Gregg Mele (NJ-6), and Democrat Eugene Mazo (NJ-8) – have all run for office before.  That means they should know better.  Democrat Brian Varela (NJ-8) was first-time candidate and admitted to making a rookie mistake: he canvassed the side of Kearny that is in the next-door 9th district as he sought signatures for his petitions.  Republican Nick Catucci (NJ-12), a newcomer, didn’t get enough legitimate signatures. Richard Franolich, who came out of nowhere to file on the last possible day, discovered that he had mistakenly filed for the 5th district instead of the 9th district, and his candidacy was rejected.

There were some filing day no-shows too, like Brandon Wienberg, who was challenging Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) in the Democratic primary, or Scott Hitchner, Jr., who had announced a GOP primary bid against Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis).  Republican David Burg (NJ-4) dropped out on filing day and endorsed someone else.

2.  Alfred’s Law

The last incumbent congressman from New Jersey to lose a primary (not including redistricting years when two incumbents found themselves running against each other) was Alfred Sieminski (D-Jersey City) in 1948.  The four-term Democrat had fallen out of favor with the Hudson County Democratic machine and won just 14% of the vote in the Democratic primary.

4th District

In New Jersey’s 4th district, 21-term Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Manchester) has a 23-1 cash advantage over conservative podcaster Mike Crispi; Smith has raised $1,028,213 and has $825,346 in his campaign warchest, while Crispi raised $95,770 – including $30,000 of his own money – and has just $35,845 left.  That’s not enough to oust an incumbent who has the politically potent organization lines in Ocean and Monmouth counties.

Retired FBI agent Steve Gray loaned himself $80,000, raised another $11,573, and has $84,758 cash-on-and.  That’s not bad, as long as Gray doesn’t pull a Stephanie Schmid, who loaned her campaign against Smith $100,000 in 2020 but then paid herself back just before Election Day.

U.S. Army veteran Mike Blasi has banked $11,856 after raising $67,004 and loaning himself $11,500.

Smith has nearly $700,000 more than all of his primary opponents combined, and his risk of losing is diminished by the splitting of the anti-establishment vote by three candidates.

10th District

Like Smith, Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark) has been on a fundraising tear.  He’s raised $816,027 so far this cycle and has $569,353 in the bank.

And unlike other incumbents across the U.S. who have lost primaries to progressive challengers, Payne has been operating on all cylinders, running the table on endorsements from elected officials and perhaps more importantly, public employee and building trades labor unions.  He’s put together a solid progressive record and doesn’t appear to be caught off guard.

That’s bad news for Imani Oakley, the mountebank job floater who is challenging Payne in the primary.  Oakley has raised $388,983, but she’s got a huge burn rate – she’s already spent 72% of her cash – and has $107,838 still left.

A third candidate, Essex County College professor Akil Khalfani, hasn’t reported raising anything.  But like the candidates in the 4th, he’s probably pulling anti-incumbent votes from Oakley.

Republicans have a primary – they haven’t won the Newark-based congressional seat since Rep. Fred Hartley, famous for his sponsorship of the Taft-Hartley Act, won his last race in 1946 – but the results of the fight between David Pinckney – who has the GOP organization lines in Essex, Hudson and Union – and Garth Stewart,  won’t matter much in one of the nation’s most Democratic congressional districts.  Pinckney and Stewart haven’t raised anything.

7th District

In the 7th district, Malinowski faces one primary opponent: Roger Bacon, a pro-Trump Democrat who is making his seventh run for public office.  (He got enough signatures to get on the ballot; that wasn’t the case in 2021 when he tried to challenge Gov. Phil Murphy in the Democratic primary).  Bacon’s hasn’t reported raising any money and he’s got no path to victory.

But Malinowski has something to lose.

In the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary, incumbent Jon Corzine won renomination with 77% of the vote against three opponents, including Bacon.  The fact that nearly one-in-four Democratic primary voters voted against Corzine sent a clear signal that the sitting governor had not yet closed the deal with his own base.

There’s really not much hope for primary challenges against incumbents:

District 1: Mario DeSantis (Cash-on-Hand: $1,980) against Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden).

District 2: John Barker and Sean Pignatelli, taking on Van Drew, didn’t file anything at all.  That means they haven’t raised any money, or they’ve already violated federal election laws.

District 3: Reuven Hendler, who filed a lawsuit trying to force a revote of the Mercer County Democratic convention, didn’t file any campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission for his bid to capture the Democratic nomination against Andy Kim.

3.  The Big Four

At this point, heading into President Joe Biden’s midterms, there are really just four New Jersey House seats in play at the most: Kim in the 3rd, Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) in the 5th, Malinowski in the 7th, and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in the 11th.

7th District

Malinowski sits on the top of the GOP target list.  His district became more Republican under a map proposed by his own party, and he faces unresolved issues over his stock trading.

Still, his fundraising is booming.  He’s brought in $4,580,995 so far and has $3,425,435 cash-on-hand as he fights for a third term.

The front runner for the Republican nomination is former Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr.  Kean came within one percentage point of ousting Malinowski two years ago.  He’s secured organization lines in Union, Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset and Warren counties and the organization slogan in Sussex.  And he’s raised $1,991,795, with $1,509,776 in his campaign warchest.

None of his GOP rivals have come anywhere near that.

Two of them have political bases: Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) has represented parts of the district in the New Jersey Legislature for nine years; and Phil Rizzo ran for governor in 2021, although it’s not clear if his political base extends beyond his own social media bubble.

But neither candidate has assembled the kind of money they need to reach primary voters.  Rizzo has raised $211,267 and has $157,612 in the bank – the most of the Kean challengers.  Peterson brought in just $27,906 during his first three months as a candidate and has $23,113 remaining.

27-year-old John Henry Isemann looked like a promising up-and-comer after a strong third-place showing at the Hunterdon GOP convention and a second-place finish in Morris.  But when it comes to lines, you’re either on it or you’re not, and Isemann isn’t.  He raised $108,805, but just $32,850 over the last three months and has $33,329 remaining.

Three other candidates have barely registered, and two of them – Fredon Mayor John Flora and U.S. Navy veteran Sterling Irwin Schwab – have not reported raising a penny.

The elephant in the room is this: Peterson, Rizzo, Isemann and the rest are competing for the same voters – conservative, non-establishment Republicans primary voters.

In the new 7th district, Jack Ciattarelli won 48.9% of the vote in the 2021 gubernatorial primary.  Like Kean, he had all the lines and a massive cash advantage.  Rizzo won 28.2% in that race in NJ-7.  The Kean coalition resembles the one Ciattarelli assembled last year.

3rd District

Three Republicans are competing for the chance to take on Kim, who may be the second most-vulnerable Democrat in the New Jersey delegation.

The front-runner is the candidate with the Burlington, Monmouth and Mercer Republican organization lines – and the money: Robert Healey, Jr, the owner of the Viking Yacht Company.

Healey has raised $1,039,414 since entering the race last November, including $260,000 of his own money.  He has $755,93 remaining in his campaign warchest.

His opponent, Atlis Gym owner Ian Smith, became well-known as a staunch critic of Murphy’s masking mandates and business closures during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it’s not clear if Smith’s popularity among anti-Murphy Republicans will translate into votes.  He raised $99,161 in his first two months as a candidate and entered the second quarter of 2022 with $68,102 in his warchest.

If not for Smith’s fame, and the presence of Steve Kush, the architect of Edward Durr’s out-of-nowhere defeat of Senate President Steve Sweeney last year, Healey’s nomination would be a foregone conclusion.

And Smith’s notoriety is not all positive.  He’s facing DUI charges that are unlikely to be resolved until after the primary.

A third candidate, Nicholas Ferrara, has blown through all but $435 of the $55,335 he raised – nearly all of it from his own campaign loan.

5th District

With a $13,971,464 warchest and no primary opponent, Gottheimer is the Human Fundraising Machine.

To pick his general election opponent – five candidates are in the race — Republicans will have a spend-it-all primary.

If there’s a leading candidate in the race, it’s Nick De Gregorio, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has the organization line in Bergen, which is about 75% of the district.

But it’s hard to dismiss the viability of Frank Pallotta, who captured the GOP nomination to run against Gottheimer two years ago without the Bergen GOP line.  Pallotta has his own line in Bergen – the Democratic county clerk gave him the premier ballot position – and has party support in the Passaic and Sussex portions of the 5th district.

De Gregorio  has raised $716,025 and has $454,466 cash-on-hand.  That eclipses Pallotta, who has $83,215 in the bank after raising $249,516 – just $38,937 in the first quarter of 2022.

Unlike 2020, when Pallotta spent more than $1.4 million of his own money against Gottheimer, the former investment banker has not put any cash into this year’s race.

Indeed, if not for his ability to self-fund, De Gregorio might be able to ride the Bergen line to a primary win and hold back money for the general election.  But the threat of Pallotta suddenly becoming a self-funder could mean that De Gregorio will need to use all his primary cash and not get caught in a May ambush.

The wild card in the race is Fred Schneiderman, a businessman who has the backing of former Trump White House advisor (and 5th district resident) Kellyanne Conway.  So far, Schneiderman is making light cable TV ads on a week-to-week basis and has raised $289,841 – with $150,000 of it coming form a personal loan.  He’s got $147,331 in his warchest.

Only Schneiderman knows how much he’ll ultimately spend to win the primary, but it’s clear that Conway and media consultant Larry Weitzner aren’t working for points on a low-budget race.

11th District

The favorite for the Republican nomination to take on Sherrill is Tayfun Selen, a Morris County Commissioner who has secured the GOP organization line in Morris and Essex counties.  Selen has raised $229,084, including a $20,000 personal loan, and has $195,065 cash-on-hand.

But one of his opponents, former assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Paul DeGroot, is self-funding his campaign and has the organization line in Passaic.  DeGroot raised $235,97 — he loaned himself $206,421 – and has $184,166.

U.S. Army veteran Toby Anderson raised $71,180 – that includes a $50,000 personal loan – and has $72,692 banked.   Two other candidates who didn’t compete in the convention process, Ruth McAndrew and Alexander Halter, didn’t file any reports detailing first quarter fundraising.

Similar to the races against Kim, Gottheimer and Malinowski, it’s possible that Sherrill’s opponents will spend down most of their campaign account just to secure the nomination and then find themselves mostly broke against well-financed incumbents.

Sherrill’s cash-on-hand is $5,523,624.

4.  The Second Tier

District 2

Tim Alexander, a former prosecutor and detective, is the almost-certain Democratic nominee for Congress against Van Drew   He has the organization lines throughout the district and has raised $260,482 – just $5,000 of that was a personal loan – and his main competitor for the nomination, former Egg Harbor Township school board member Hector Tavarez, dropped out after losing the Atlantic County Democratic convention.

But Alexander’s burn rate has been extraordinary.  He’s already spent $234,733 and has just $24,148 in the bank.  That’s enough to get him past newcomer Carolyn Rush — she’s raised $51,168 and has $23,867 cash-on-hand – but there’s nothing left, at least so far, to take out Van Drew.

Van Drew has raised $2,184,105 this cycle and has $1,0001,690 in his warchest.

District 6

There’s a three-way primary to pick a GOP opponent for House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr (D-Long Branch), one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill and a congressman from New Jersey since 1988.

The front-runner for the chance to take on Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-Long Branch) is Monmouth County Commissioner Sue Kiley.  She raised $204,975 during the first quarter of the year, including a $100,000 personal loan, and has $201,361 in her campaign account.

Kiley also has the organization lines in Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

Her main opponent is Dr. Rik Mehta, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official and the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Cory Booker in 2020.  Mehta has just $27,436 cash-on-hand and raised only $26,966 during the first three months of 2022 and $150,791 total. Most of that came from a $70,000 personal loan he made to his own campaign; $20,000 of the loan came in Q1 of 2022.

A third candidate, former Republican National Committee staffer Thomas Toomey, raised $28,991 over the last three months and has burned through most of the $106,512 he raised for his runs for Congress – first against Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in the 11th district, and since December, for his race against Pallone.   He has $33,506 cash-on-hand.

Pallone has $4,084,329 in his warchest and a reputation for taking challenges seriously.

District 8

Robert J. Menendez, a Port Authority Commissioner and the son of U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, is the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 8th.  He moved quickly to take organization lines and key endorsements within days of the announcement that Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York) would not seek re-election to the seat he’s held since 2006.

Menendez raised $839,257 during the first three months of his candidacy and has $692,709 banked.  That dwarfs the $25,543 raised by David Ocampo-Grajales, who put $5,000 of his own money in the race and has $16,471 left.

A third candidate, Ane Roseborough-Eberhard, hasn’t reported raising anything.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-04-20 02:49:16 -0700