One of the most competitive Democratic primaries in Tuesday’s election in New Jersey is the race to challenge Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the 2nd Congressional District legislator who defected to the Republican Party last December over the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

“You have my undying support,” Van Drew told Trump in an Oval Office meeting in December 2019, capping a wild week in politics in his southern New Jersey district.

Two days before he publicly announced his defection or cast his vote against impeaching Trump, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, announced she would challenge him in the Democratic primary.

Before the week was out, Callahan Harrison received the endorsement of seven crucial foot soldiers in the South Jersey Democratic party machine: New Jersey Senate President Steven Sweeney and the all-important chairmen of six county party committees within the congressional district. The party chairmen have the power to endorse candidates and that endorsement gives the candidate what’s known as “the line” -- the column that is topped by the best known Democrats in the election.

“And for a lot of us, that made us suspicious because we saw that pattern with Jeff Van Drew,” said Angela Bardoe, a sign language interpreter in Cumberland County who got involved in progressive activism after Trump’s election. In 2018, the party boss, George Norcross, endorsed Van Drew before he had even announced he was running for congress.

“And we kind of felt like they did that to us again; that they went ahead without including our opinions and our perspectives and preemptively endorsed another candidate before we actually had time to have a good look at everyone who was running,” Bardoe said.

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Bardoe and a network of progressive organizations are supporting Amy Kennedy, who is one of five candidates in the Democratic primary. In a strange political twist, Kennedy is the insurgent running without machine support despite her pedigree: She is married to former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy. When Patrick left Congress in 2011, right before marrying Amy, it was the first time since 1947 that there wasn’t a Kennedy on Capitol Hill.

Amy Kennedy has far and away the best shot of beating Jeff Van Drew,” said Sue Altman, director of New Jersey Working Families. “And that's really important because this is going to be one of the most exciting races in the entire country this year.”

Altman believes Kennedy has a chance to beat the machine. She’s got the storied political name.

But she’s also lived most of her life in Atlantic County, which makes up about 40% of the vote in the district.

“My parents both taught school here for nearly 40 years and that's generations and thousands of families that they've touched over our lifetime here,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the day, you know, all those connections and having supported Democrats in this community for so long and being a part of the community really makes a difference because those relationships are what people trust.”

The 2nd Congressional District is a swing district that stretches across the southern end of New Jersey, with the bulk of the population clustered along the Jersey Shore from Atlantic City to Cape May. Trump won the district in 2016, but former President Barack Obama won twice and former Republican President George Bush won before that.

Three middle-aged white men--former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the left, South Jersey party boss George Norcross in the center, and New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney on the right--at an event.

South Jersey party boss George Norcross (center) with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (left) and New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney at an event.

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South Jersey party boss George Norcross (center) with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (left) and New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney at an event.
WNYC

Neither Kennedy nor Callahan Harrison want the campaign to be about the Norcross machine. Callahan Harrison declined a request to be interviewed after Gothamist/WNYC explained the story would partly focus on her party backing. Kennedy spoke to Gothamist on the betrayal of Van Drew and her opposition to Trump.

“Right now we need to be focused on what's happening and how people are suffering in this district,” Kennedy said. “And it's a time when I think a lot of people are struggling not just with their physical health and the economy, but the anxiety and stress of this moment.”

The party machines are so successful at getting their endorsed candidates elected since an endorsement comes with preferential placement on the ballot.

But this year is not politics as usual. The primary is likely to attract more than just the party faithful, because ballots were mailed to every registered voter, making it much easier to cast a vote and tougher to predict the outcome.

“No one is quite sure because the more random registered Democrats may now vote, which upends whatever model you might have had,” said Ben Dworkin, a professor with the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “So no one is really sure what's going to happen here.”

The outcome may be uncertain, but there’s no mystery about the battle lines that have been drawn. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has endorsed Callahan Harrison. It’s notable that he took a lot of heat last year for holding a fundraiser for his presidential campaign hosted by George Norcross.

Norcross and Murphy have been locked in a power struggle since the governor took office in 2017. But he is riding a wave of popularity for his handling of the pandemic, and has spent some of that capital endorsing Kennedy. A source close to his political operation says the governor sees a win for Kennedy as a blow to the machine. It’s a sentiment shared with Sue Altman of New Jersey Working Families.

“This election needs to be a repudiation of the South Jersey machines since they gave us the Jeff Van Drew turncoat that we're stuck with right now,” Altman said.