ATLANTIC CITY — For a congressional primary not getting too much attention, the June 7 contests in New Jersey do not lack for people who stand out in a crowd.
There’s long-bearded gym provocateur Ian Smith, 35, who came to prominence in 2020 as a vaccine-mandate opponent and lockdown defier at the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr.
He’s running in the Republican primary in the Third Congressional District against Bob Healey, 38, a yacht manufacturer who fronted the Philly horror/punk-rock band the Ghouls back in the day.
The Third District, redrawn to encompass Burlington and parts of Monmouth and Mercer Counties, is represented by Andy Kim, 39, a two-term incumbent Democrat, in a redrawn district now without heavily Republican Ocean County.
In the Second District in deep South Jersey, there’s the 6-foot-6, cowboy-hat-wearing Tim Alexander, 56, a former prosecutor under then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and a longtime investigator with the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. Alexander cites his encounter as a young Black man mistakenly targeted by police, beaten, and shot at as motivation to represent the district in Congress.
He’s competing against Carolyn Rush, a Lockheed Martin engineer who moved to her summer home in Sea Isle City, in the district represented by Republican incumbent Jeff Van Drew, who famously switched parties and pledged his undying loyalty to then-President Donald Trump.
Political analysts expect the three South Jersey incumbents: Kim, Van Drew, and First Congressional District Democratic stalwart Donald Norcross to have the advantage, especially with the redrawn districts.
“Certainly compared to Pennsylvania, New Jersey’s primary season has been quite quiet,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “There are any number of races, but no one is expecting an upset.”
Only North Jersey’s Seventh District, currently represented by Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, is seen as competitive, as former state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who narrowly lost to Malinowski two years ago, is seeking a rematch.
But you never know.
Here’s what to watch in Tuesday’s primaries in the three South Jersey districts:
Third Congressional District
In 2018, Andy Kim toppled incumbent Rep. Tom MacArthur to help flip the House of Representatives to its Democratic majority. A former State Department official, Kim’s stooping to collect water bottles off the floor of the Capitol Rotunda the morning after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack became an iconic image.
In an interview, Kim said he believes voters appreciate his attempts to work across the aisle in Congress, and pointed to the Infrastructure Act, and the securing of a $60 million state-of-the-art Veterans Administration health-care clinic in Toms River.
“When I first came into Congress, there I was trying to think, ‘Can I survive this kind of environment?’” Kim said in an interview. “I’m not that political a person. I’m a public servant. Now, I’ve done 51 town halls all throughout the district. I work across the aisle. Not only have I been able to survive, I feel like it’s resonating here. I outperformed Biden by eight points. People are sick and tired of the arguing, and yelling, and rancor.”
On the GOP side, Smith has had to answer questions about a March DUI arrest, particularly in light of a 2007 drunken-driving incident that killed a 19-year-old. He has taken responsibility for the 2007 crash, but denies he was drunk in the 2022 arrest.
Mostly, he has centered his campaign around resistance to government mandates, and supporting parents who are unhappy with school curriculums and policies. He’s pro-gun and antiabortion rights, and attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, but said he did not enter the Capitol.
“As much as I’m a Republican, I’m not looking to only get the votes of Republicans,” Smith said. “I want to go into these areas, blue areas, like Willingboro, areas of Burlington. The reality is, these people are just as frustrated by their politicians as anybody else’s.”
He said Healey is “the most vanilla Republican you can think of” and said people are tired of politicians who have never known what it is like to “put their head down and worry about feeding their families.”
Healey, who describes himself as a “South Jersey parent running for Congress ... against a radical Democrat,” who believes in “free markets over socialism,” said in a video posted on social media he was running against “the left’s critical race theory crusade.” He did not respond to a request for an interview.
His website says he is executive cochairman of the Viking Group yacht manufacturers, and enjoys participating in Revolutionary War and World War I reenactments and yoga. He lives in Moorestown.
Second Congressional District
Van Drew, 69, first elected to Congress as a Democrat, is facing a primary challenge from Cumberland County’s Sean Pignatelli, who describes himself as the “true Constitutional Conservative,” and John Barker.
Pignatelli, 36, says that Van Drew has “failed in being a true ally to Veterans, agriculture workers, law enforcement and the Second Amendment ... [the] four pillars ... of all strong conservatives.”
Van Drew did not respond to a request for an interview. He is well-funded and not expected to have any roadblocks in the primary.
The redrawn district now includes more Republican areas, further shoring up Van Drew’s base in parts of Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, and Cape May Counties. He easily defeated Democrat Amy Kennedy in 2020 to win reelection.
On the Democratic side, Alexander says his ideas will appeal to Democrats, Republicans, and the many unaffiliated voters of the Second District, a sprawling district that includes Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, and parts of Gloucester and Ocean Counties. “The reality is, my platforms are for everyone,” he said. “I don’t have blue ideas or red ideas. I have ideas that will help South Jersey.”
He said Van Drew has failed to help secure the area’s share of federal funding and cited the $10.2 billion the state got from the CARES Act. “Not to get too wonky,” he said, “but this district got 1.6% of the money. It’s pathetic.”
His opponent, Rush, said she was motivated to run for office after attending protests in D.C., including the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives. Like Alexander, she’s never run for office, but said she has the skills to make a difference in Washington.
Rush, a Lockheed systems engineer on a U.S. Navy contract involving the Aegis shield system, is critical of Van Drew, saying he had voted against the interests of the district, including veterans.
National politics, she said, “is where I see the biggest need.”
“New Jersey has some of the best laws in the country: gun laws, minimum wage, so many things New Jersey has done right. As a manager for many, many years, I believe I have a skill set that could be useful. At age 60, it’s not like I’m going to run for dogcatcher and work my way up.”
First Congressional District
Once again, the incumbent in this Democratic stronghold that encompasses Camden and Gloucester Counties, Rep. Donald Norcross, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is not expected to face any headwinds in his quest for another term.
In the primary, Norcross, 63, a union electrician who is a brother of Democratic power broker George Norcross, faces 33-year-old teacher Mario DiSantis.
On the Republican side, Claire Gustafson, 59, the 2020 nominee, is facing a last-minute candidate, Damon Galdo, 40, a union carpenter.
In 2020, Norcross defeated Gustafson by 25 points.