“I think the temperature is there so that someone can compete against him,” said Cathy Brienza, founder of Ridgewood JOLT, a local progressive advocacy group in the Gottheimer district. “I think he should be scared.”
But Gottheimer doesn’t seem to feel any heat from the left, even when activists protest outside his district office in suburban North Jersey, about 25 miles from New York City.
There are no major opponents who would challenge Gottheimer in 2022, in part because he’s a massive fundraiser who, with $ 11 million in campaign money, would dominate the airwaves in the country’s most expensive media market. At the same time, the New Jersey Democrats understand that running a Liberal in a district that has been Republican for decades could jeopardize a seat Gottheimer comfortably won.
Also in Gottheimer’s favor is New Jersey’s unique electoral system, which gives party leaders far-reaching influence over the primaries and makes the already difficult challenge of ousting an incumbent even more daunting. Although this format has long favored the party establishment, it now has the unintended effect of isolating an incumbent who violates the party’s legislative strategy.
The so-called circle line, where the main candidates are on the ballot along with other establishment politicians, is the bane of the Democrats and Republicans who fail to win their party’s support. But the fight against it took on a new intensity over the past year amid the persistent divide between progressives and more traditional Democrats. A progressive coalition has filed a lawsuit contesting the ballot structure.
While many of these progressive activists were allied with Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, the governor won his first primary thanks in part to the strength of the line and ran again for re-election in June, despite pressure to avoid it.
In most New Jersey primary elections, candidates supported by their local district party organizations are grouped on the same row or column, from the top of the map to the city council races. Off-the-line candidates are sometimes placed alone in a row or column, occasionally at the other end of the ballot, known as a “Siberia ballot”.
The system has helped political bosses – some elected, some not – control New Jersey politics for decades, from Camden County to Hudson County. And even established companies that fall out of favor with a single local electricity broker can be taken out of line. make their re-election almost impossible.
“Because of the line and the county party system, New Jersey has less of a robust primaries culture than New York, where in 2018 and 2020 a whole wave of Democratic lawmakers were overturned from the primary challenges,” said Joe Dinkin, campaign director for the Working Families Party whose member protested against Gottheimer’s district office in New Jersey. “It was structurally more difficult for this culture of the primaries to prevail.”
Experts say “the line” is a more effective tool against lesser-known insurgent candidates for offices like the state legislature and the district commission than it is for members of Congress. Gottheimer’s office, for example, will be the first to appear on the 2022 area code, as none of the US Senators from New Jersey is running for re-election and no better-known candidate catches the voters’ eye.
Still, there are indications that Gottheimer benefited. He didn’t even face a primary in 2018, and that same year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the original squad won their seats in Congress. And when Gottheimer got a challenge from the left last year, the line seemed to make a difference, albeit a relatively small one, in his favor.
In this 2020 election, three of the four districts in the Gottheim district did not use the “line” format for their ballot papers. But Bergen County, which accounts for about 80 percent of the county’s Democratic primary voters, did. Gottheimer defeated the progressive Arati Kreibich by about two to one. He won with 34 points in Bergen County. In the three other counties that did not use the line, his lead was between 23 and 30 points.
“This suggests that in a closer race the line would certainly have made a difference in outcome,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied the impact of ballot design in New Jersey on elections and is in favor of eliminate it.
In a statement to POLITICO, Gottheimer said the House of Representatives had to pass a reconciliation law and the bipartisan infrastructure package, “which includes two million jobs, climate resistance, clean drinking water and resources to repair our roads and bridges. I am determined to do whatever it takes to get both of them over the finish line.
“I’m not a fan of those who are obstructing the president’s agenda, blocking the gateway tunnel, and risking the reinstatement of SALT and support for universal pre- and childcare,” he said.
For their part, some New Jersey Democrats grow impatient with Gottheimer.
Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg, who has been an advocate of the left in New Jersey politics for years, has contested that Gottheimer attacked Pelosi for violating “her firm public obligation” to vote solely on the infrastructure bill .
“I don’t know if he’ll have a main fight next year. I am not focused on that. Right now it’s about getting the Biden agenda through, ”said Weinberg. “And I don’t think it was appropriate that he attacked Nancy Pelosi, who I and the majority of Democrats I know have a lot of respect for.”
Democratic leader LeRoy Jones does not mention Gottheimer by name, posted a comment this week unmistakably aimed at Gottheimer, who urged the delegation from the State House to pursue Biden’s strategy.
“Anything less than the full unity of the party will lead to political disaster and means that this critical moment will not be reached,” wrote Jones.
The intensity of the backlash against Gottheimer has given the progressives some hope that a competitive primary is possible if it continues.
“If there was ever a time when a Democrat could put himself in such shame and shame as to really deserve a primary challenge that breaks through and gets people to pay attention … I think it’s behavior like this, “said Dinkin.