One of the nation’s hardest-fought intra-party incumbent campaigns will be decided on June 5 – a fierce battle between New Jersey Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ-8) and Steve Rothman (D-NJ-9). Reapportionment and redistricting have created 13 sets of congressional incumbent pairings, three of which are decided. All but two feature members of the same party opposing each other. New NJ-9 polling data, disputed by one campaign brain trust, suggests a very tight outcome between the two congressmen.
The new 9th District of New Jersey lies to the north and east of Newark, capturing some of the communities directly opposite New York City across the Hudson River including Fort Lee, Secaucus, Englewood, Palisades Park, and Cliffside Park. It’s largest city is Paterson (population: 146,199), where Mr. Pascrell presided as mayor before his election to Congress in 1996. While serving as the city’s chief executive, he simultaneously represented part of Paterson and Passaic counties in the state House of Representatives.
The new 9th will elect a Democrat in the general election, but the party primary is becoming very interesting to say the least. Rothman is from Bergen County, but his home community of Fair Lawn was placed in District 5, where he would have been forced to challenge incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett (R) in a GOP-friendly seat. Rothman represents 54 percent of the new 9th CD constituency versus 43 percent for Pascrell. The remaining three percent comes from Garrett’s current district.
Just two days ago, a Pascrell internal poll was “leaked” to the media showing that Rothman clings to only a one-point, 44-43 percent margin. The Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group poll (May 7-8; 406 likely NJ-9 Democratic primary voters) also indicated that Pascrell leads 46-41 percent under a slightly different turnout model. If the overall share of the Bergen County vote drops to 51 percent or below and the Passaic County voter participation share tops 38 percent, the race flips to Pascrell.
The intriguing part about this poll is not so much its finding, which is assumed accurate since Garin-Hart-Yang is a well-known, credible, Democratic polling firm but, rather, the Rothman campaign’s reaction to the numbers. Actually scoffing at the Pascrell team for leaking their numbers to the press – “winning campaigns do not leak their polls” – and saying the survey is wrong without offering their own countering data, suggests that this race is as close as Pascrell says and either man does have a chance to win the primary.
To differ with the unidentified Rothman spokesman who said that “winning campaigns do not leak their polls,” the exact opposite is true. A clearer sign of a campaign in trouble is one where the managers claim to have strong survey data, as Rothman’s people do, but then refuse to release the numbers.
On paper and in practice, Rep. Rothman has a slight advantage but the 75-year old Pascrell has been tenacious in defense of his redrawn seat. Rothman won the official Democratic Party endorsement in Bergen and Hudson counties, giving him preferential ballot placement in those two localities, which is a major plus in a close election. Though Pascrell has the Passaic County line, several prominent elected officials such as Paterson Mayor Jeff Jones and Passaic City Council President and state Assemblyman Gary Schaer have announced their support of Rothman.
It remains to be seen if Pascrell’s planned public push of an earlier endorsement by former president Bill Clinton changes the electorate in any significant way, but the move certainly won’t hurt his standing among these most loyal of northern New Jersey Democratic voters.
On a major primary night featuring voting in six states, including the 53 House Districts in California under a new election law, one of the most engrossing results will be found in this urban northern New Jersey congressional district. The final week fireworks here will be well worth watching.