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Amy Kennedy has emerged as the upset winner in a South Jersey congressional district to face Jeff Van Drew

Amy Kennedy will face first-term Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the longtime Democrat who drew national attention when he broke with his party over the impeachment of President Donald Trump and became a Republican.

Amy Kennedy acknowledges fans, with the support of her husband, Patrick, and their six children, before declaring victory in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary on Tuesday night.
Amy Kennedy acknowledges fans, with the support of her husband, Patrick, and their six children, before declaring victory in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary on Tuesday night.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A member of the storied Kennedy political family emerged as the Democratic nominee in a South Jersey congressional district late Tuesday, defying expectations that it would take days before results were clear in the state’s primary election while officials count hundreds of thousands of mail ballots.

Amy Kennedy, a former teacher and the wife of ex-U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, was leading in the 2nd Congressional District primary with about 58% of the vote, according to early Associated Press returns, compared with about 28% for Brigid Callahan Harrison, a college professor. A large number of mail ballots remain to be counted. But the margin and trends in the mail ballots returned so far were large enough that the AP projected Kennedy as the winner, Harrison conceded, and Kennedy declared victory shortly after.

Kennedy will face first-term Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the longtime Democrat who drew national attention when he broke with his party over the impeachment of President Donald Trump and became a Republican. Van Drew easily won his primary after Trump allies largely cleared the GOP field for him.

“My message to Jeff Van Drew tonight is: We have had enough and we demand better,” Kennedy said Tuesday night outside her campaign headquarters in Northfield, flanked by her husband and five children on one side, and Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy Murphy, on the other. “We have had enough of you and Donald Trump.”

Like in Pennsylvania and other states that expanded the use of mail ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, many votes were cast well before election day, which was originally scheduled for June 2. With the Democratic presidential nominating contest effectively decided months ago, the races that attracted the most attention Tuesday were in two South Jersey congressional districts expected to be battlegrounds in November’s general election.

The 2nd District primary became a proxy fight in an intraparty feud between the pro-Harrison South Jersey Democratic machine led by power broker George E. Norcross III, and Murphy, who backed Kennedy and introduced her before her victory speech Tuesday night. Though Kennedy appeared to outspend Harrison in the race, the win was still an upset. Harrison had favorable ballot position in most parts of the district thanks to county parties’ endorsements.

Kennedy lent her campaign $500,000 and spent about $1.2 million. Harrison’s campaign spent more than $400,000, with a boost from a $160,000 personal loan. General Majority PAC, an outside group airing TV commercials backing Harrison, spent $490,000 since June 24, records show, and Kennedy was supported by groups that spent at least $135,000.

Will Cunningham, a lawyer running in the primary, sought to energize progressive grassroots support, but failed to pick up the favorable ballot position associated with county parties’ endorsements. He had garnered about 10% of the vote in early returns.

In the 3rd Congressional District, former construction executive David Richter and former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs were running for the GOP nomination to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Andy Kim. Richter lent his campaign $600,000 and spent most of it, while Gibbs’ campaign spent about $200,000 and was backed by an outside group that spent $225,000 on anti-Richter ads, according to Federal Election Commission records. Richter had previously planned to challenge Van Drew.

In Atlantic City, Democrats were also choosing among incumbent Mayor Marty Small Sr., Pamela Thomas-Fields, a planning and economic development specialist, and Jimmy Whitehead, a 63-year-old Navy veteran and energy expert who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Small took office after the previous mayor, Frank Gilliam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and resigned.

Campaigns were anticipating relatively high voter participation, in part because most registered Democratic and Republican voters were automatically sent mail ballots under Murphy’s order to conduct the election primarily by mail — without needing to apply. Independent and inactive voters were sent mail ballot applications.

Stephanie Salvatore, superintendent of elections for Gloucester County, said turnout was much higher than usual for a primary election. Her office received 40,000 ballots before the polls opened Tuesday, she said, adding, “We could easily hit 50,000.”

That would exceed the 49,321 Gloucester County votes cast in the 2016 primary, when Bernie Sanders was still battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Part of Gloucester County is included in the 2nd District, which stretches from Burlington County to Cape May County.

“It just shows, if you make it convenient, people will do it,” Salvatore said.

The state kept about half of its polling places open, primarily for voters with disabilities, people without permanent addresses, and others who couldn’t or preferred not to vote by mail. But foot traffic appeared light Tuesday.

Instead, most votes were continuing to stream in Tuesday by mail, at drop boxes across the state, and by hand delivery to county elections offices.

“Today, the folks who have been reaching out to me have been asking about the ballot drop box locations,” said Jesse Burns, head of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “I haven’t received a lot of polling place inquiries, but I have received a lot of ballot box location inquiries.”

It remained to be seen if Republicans would vote by mail at a lower rate than Democrats as they did in Pennsylvania, given that Trump has repeatedly and falsely declared that voting by mail is rife with widespread fraud.

Elections administrators reported low in-person turnout. The bigger headache Tuesday appeared to be long lines outside Motor Vehicle Commission locations — which had previously been closed because of the coronavirus — as people tried to renew licenses.

Murphy’s order to run the election primarily by mail included a number of one-time changes, such as allowing mail ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by election day and received up to a week later. That was a key change, Burns said, along with the installation of drop boxes, in smoothing the vote-by-mail process.

The state also agreed last month — settling a federal lawsuit brought by the League and others — to notify all voters whose mail ballots are missing signatures or whose signatures do not match state records. Any voter whose ballot has a signature issue will be mailed a form allowing the ballot to be approved. (Almost 10% of mail ballots in New Jersey’s May 12 municipal election were rejected, mostly because of signature problems.)

“This is a state that endeavored to provide fairly open access to vote by mail this season,” said Kristen Clarke, head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which runs the national Election Protection program.

Most of the calls received Tuesday, Clarke told reporters, came from voters who had a mail ballot problem of some kind, including not having received theirs on time. Clarke said some voters were also confused about which polling places were open.

Still, voting appeared to proceed fairly smoothly Tuesday. Burns said she hoped the experience of running a large-scale vote-by-mail election will lead to changes in the future. For example, she said, the high usage of ballot drop boxes suggests more locations should be added.

She also warned that results will take longer than normal to count, and that people must be patient. The days-long process of counting mail ballots did not begin until Tuesday morning, and those ballots will continue to be accepted by mail for another week.

Gloucester County workers had been counting ballots since 7 a.m. Tuesday at a warehouse in West Deptford, with two seated at each of the eight-foot tables spaced six feet apart, said Salvatore, the county’s election superintendent.

She said the municipalities that held in-person voting Tuesday reported low but steady attendance, and that all seemed to be operating without problems.

“I hope the next week goes as smoothly as this, with counting the provisional ballots,” Salvatore said. “Maybe we’ll leave the excitement for the November election.”