There was nothing ordinary about New Jersey’s primary on Tuesday.

For one thing, the election was conducted largely by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps just as unusual: A candidate backed by the South Jersey Democratic machine lost a Democratic primary in South Jersey.

The question consuming New Jersey politicos Wednesday was whether Amy Kennedy’s win in the 2nd Congressional District over Brigid Callahan Harrison was an aberration or a sign of things to come for the powerful Democratic machine. Kennedy will face freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the former longtime Democrat who broke with his party over the impeachment of President Donald Trump last year and became a Republican.

The race was the latest clash between Gov. Phil Murphy, who backed Kennedy, and the South Jersey Democratic establishment led by insurance executive George E. Norcross III and Senate President Steve Sweeney, who supported Harrison. That feud came to a head last year when Norcross sued Murphy over a task force the governor established to investigate the state’s economic development programs. Norcross claimed the task force was illegally targeting him and his business partners. A judge ruled in Murphy’s favor, and an appeals court affirmed that decision this week.

Murphy allies and some anti-Norcross progressives see other cracks in the machine, which controls local and county governments — and therefore public jobs and contracts — across the region, and was built by Norcross over more than two decades from his power base in Camden County. For years, machine-backed lawmakers have made South Jersey a force in Trenton by voting as a bloc whose support is crucial to any big legislation.

A slate of anti-machine challengers swept party committee races in Collingswood last year, and Norcross didn’t have a seat at the table when other Democratic leaders resolved a fight over the state party chairmanship in December.

Kennedy, a former teacher who is the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of the storied political family, was no upstart challenger: Her campaign spent at least $1.2 million, with the help of a $500,000 personal loan. And she had the coveted first ballot position in voter-rich Atlantic County.

“I do think this is a little bit of a unique circumstance,” said Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist and longtime adviser to former Gov. Chris Christie. “This is a Kennedy — a Kennedy with serious financial backing and the governor’s backing, winning against what was frankly a weak candidate.

“I do not think this signals somehow the end of the strength of the South Jersey Democratic political machine,” DuHaime said, noting its dominance in state and local races. “But what it does mean is that certainly the progressives see an opportunity next year. There will be a bunch of primaries next year in the county and state level. That will be the fight.”

For his part, Norcross issued a statement late Tuesday congratulating Kennedy and calling it “important that we retake the Second Congressional seat and continue to advance a pro-worker, pro-reform, and pro-civil justice agenda in Washington, DC.”

A Norcross spokesperson declined to comment for this article Wednesday.

It’s not the first time a Norcross-backed candidate has lost an election. In statewide primaries, in which Democratic votes are concentrated in the northern part of the state, South Jersey Democrats have a particularly poor track record. Most recently, Sweeney fell short in a shadow primary campaign against Murphy, who was elected in 2017.

But DuHaime couldn’t recall the last time the machine lost a primary in its own backyard.

And it wasn’t close: Partial returns showed Kennedy leading with 59% of the vote, while Harrison trailed with 26%, and lawyer Will Cunningham had 12%. Barely 90 minutes after the polls closed, Harrison conceded the race.

A political science professor at Montclair State University, she had been endorsed by six of the eight county parties in the district — a day before Van Drew met with Trump in the Oval Office to officially announce his party switch and declare his “undying support” for the president.

The endorsements gave Harrison favorable ballot positions across much of the district and a strong network of support. In previous elections, that might have effectively ended the race.

“Seems pretty clear to us: Steve Sweeney and George Norcross are weaker than they’ve been since some of us were in middle school,” Sue Altman, head of New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance and a fierce Norcross critic, wrote in an email to supporters Wednesday.

In an interview, Altman said her progressive allies will feel emboldened by the victory to put forth more candidates for future races, targeting people such as Norcross’ brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, and Sweeney himself.

And one Murphy ally said the results showed the governor, along with a progressive coalition that includes public-sector labor unions, “is the driving force” in the state’s Democratic Party right now.

But even some progressives acknowledge that the South Jersey machine remains powerful — and that congressional races generally aren’t what’s most important to Norcross and his allies.

State and local government — whose jobs, contracts, and influence are the lifeblood of a party machine — are the big prize in New Jersey. And across South Jersey, Norcross is still king on this front.

Republican Dennis Levinson, the Atlantic County executive, questioned how committed to Harrison the Norcross forces really were, especially after Kennedy entered the race. He said her campaign did not have the typical power of a Norcross-fueled candidate.

“It was too little, too late,” he said of a pro-Harrison TV ad blitz by a Norcorss-aligned political group. “It didn’t seem like there was too much involvement by Norcross. There was not a whole lot of enthusiasm.”

“In the end, they did spend money because it was their person,” Levinson said. “But that’s a drop in the bucket.”

George E. Norcross III testifies before a New Jersey State Senate committee in Trenton in November.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
George E. Norcross III testifies before a New Jersey State Senate committee in Trenton in November.

Some insiders noted that South Jersey Democrats have often directed their strongest efforts toward state legislative races and at challengers of Donald Norcross — even in safe races, such as the 2016 primary, when a 25-year-old progressive mounted a grassroots campaign against him.

Alex Law, then a former IBM consultant from Voorhees, had no political experience or fund-raising muscle. But by election day, Norcross, then seeking a second term in Congress, had spent close to $1 million on his reelection, despite being heavily favored.

Law’s campaign remained a long shot, but local party leaders left nothing to chance: Days before the election, Norcross touted an endorsement from President Barack Obama himself. He crushed Law at the polls, drawing more than twice as many votes.

Other top national Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have thrown their support behind Donald Norcross over the years. In February, Pelosi and Sen. Cory Booker held a fund-raiser and rally for his reelection.

And despite suggestions that an anti-machine candidate might challenge Donald Norcross in this year’s primary, he ran uncontested Tuesday. Even Murphy endorsed him.

Sweeney’s 2017 reelection, meanwhile, is believed to have been the costliest state legislative election in U.S. history. Sweeney was backed by multiple outside political groups and won by 18 percentage points.

“When it comes down to it, they would probably rather protect their home turf,” Altman said. “That said, I don’t think they’re happy about this. I think a congressional seat is a crown jewel, and they definitely don’t want to lose them.”

Kate Delany, president of South Jersey Progressive Democrats, said the machine “should get used to the idea of primaries.”

Primary campaigns illuminate the direction of the party, she said, “and progressives are forcing that conversation to happen.”

Staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.