EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. — Six New Jersey Democrats piled into a Teamsters hall here last week to make the case for why they should be the one to take on their party’s longtime standard-bearer turned archenemy.

On the surface, there wasn’t much tension among the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who defected to the Republican Party last year after opposing President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

“We agree on 90%,” Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University and one of the Democrats running in the South Jersey district, said during the candidate forum Thursday. “We all have a common goal. ... If we’re going to beat Jeff Van Drew, we have to be unified.”

But despite the talk of unity, there’s a deeper debate brewing: Should it be an establishment Democrat or an outsider who goes face to face against Van Drew?

Harrison is the establishment front-runner. She entered the race first, almost immediately after Van Drew’s party switch in December. She has support from six of the eight county party chairs in the district, and endorsements from key unions like the American Federation of Teachers.

Meanwhile, Amy Kennedy, a former public school teacher, has come to be seen as the leading “outsider” candidate, despite her pedigree as a member of a prominent Democratic family. She has significant name recognition and the potential to tap into a powerful national fund-raising network fueled by the ties to donors of her husband, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy.

What remains to be seen is whether rank-and-file Democratic voters, having just been spurned by the ultimate machine Democrat in Van Drew, will pay any mind to the establishment in the June 2 primary.

“I’m wondering what I’m going to do in November," said Angela Bardoe, 48, of Vineland. “I’m just so frustrated with this party-machine apparatus."

Bardoe went on to say that if Harrison ends up being the Democratic candidate, “maybe I’ll vote for" her.

Democratic congressional candidates Brigid Callahan Harrison, left, and Amy Kennedy, right, during a meeting of Atlantic City Democrats on Jan. 13, 2020.
Amy S. Rosenberg
Democratic congressional candidates Brigid Callahan Harrison, left, and Amy Kennedy, right, during a meeting of Atlantic City Democrats on Jan. 13, 2020.

One thing that could alter the balance of the race is who wins support of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. The party in the county — where 37% of the district’s voters and 41% of its Democrats live — has remained neutral in the primary. And the local party chair, Michael Suleiman, says he’s going to keep it that way until March 8, when committee members vote on an endorsement.

Suleiman stressed that committee members are "hungry for policy positions” when deciding whom to endorse in the primary, but that come June, they will get behind the Democratic nominee.

”No matter who we nominate," Suleiman said, "we gotta get behind him or her 100%, [because] we gotta kick Jeff Van Drew’s ass.”

Other dynamics at play are whether all the candidates, who include Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett and former Sen. Cory Booker staffer Will Cunningham, will ultimately remain in the race.

“The benefit for Harrison is that in a divided primary, organizational support matters,” said Ben Dworkin, director of public policy at Rowan University. “If all of the anti-organization votes are split among Kennedy and several others, then the person who has the organizational support, in this case Harrison, can emerge victorious.”

In 2018, Van Drew, then a centrist Democrat, ran against multiple progressives, who ended up splitting the vote. He won the Democratic primary with 57% of the vote.

Van Drew is definitely on the minds of voters and candidates, but so are kitchen-table issues like health care, the economy, and the environment. Still, voters are finding it hard to rally around one candidate.

“I don’t find that they’re that different myself,” said Susen Shapiro, 71, of Egg Harbor Township. “I have to tell you I am undecided."

Harrison was the only Democrat required to file a 2019 campaign finance report. She has shown some fund-raising strength, raking in $45,000 in the last two weeks of the year. And 57% of that haul came from small-dollar donors.

Van Drew had $1.1 million in the bank at the end of the year.

The district, which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs in Gloucester County south to Cape May, and from north of Atlantic City into Burlington County, is a battleground. Trump carried it by five points in 2016. Barack Obama won 53% of the vote there each time he ran.

“The district, overall, has been represented either by a Republican or extremely conservative Democrat now for over two decades,” Dworkin said. “Therefore, one would say that it’s more important to have someone who could appeal to these middle-of-the-road voters. But that kind of candidate might not win in the Democratic primary, where progressive voices have a much larger role to play."