Amy Kennedy and her clan sideline George Norcross' New Jersey political machine I Stile

Charles Stile

When squaring off against an entrenched political machine, it certainly helps to have the the glamour and muscle of the Kennedy dynasty on your side.

That was a key takeaway from Tuesday, when Amy Kennedy, a fourth-generation South Jersey native who married one of President John F. Kennedy's nephews, scored a stunning victory in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District.

Kennedy defeated Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University political science professor, and Will Cunningham, a lawyer and former investigator of the House Oversight Committee.

Kennedy will now take on Jeff Van Drew, who defected to the Republican Party last December, a move that drew national attention and the grateful embrace of President Donald Trump. The fall contest now looms as a showdown between a progressive Democrat with Kennedy cachet and a veteran Cape May County lawmaker and Trump loyalist.

Governor Murphy (right) joined a Facebook live rally with Amy Kennedy, Democratic candidate for 2nd Congressional District, with her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy on July 1, 2020

"My message to Jeff Van Drew: We have had enough of the hate, selfishness and division,'' Kennedy said in a victory speech in Northfield, near Atlantic City. "We have had enough of you and Donald Trump."

New Frontier versus MAGA

The made-for-tabloids narrative of the fall race — Kennedy versus Trump, New Frontier versus Make America Great Again, Hyannisport versus Mar-a-Lago — will undoubtedly draw national attention. Still, the primary proved to be a proxy for a bitter internal Democratic Party war that has defined the political landscape in New Jersey for the past three years.

Harrison quickly corralled the backing of the South Jersey machine assembled, financed and managed by George E. Norcross III, an insurance executive who is widely considered the most powerful unelected Democrat in New Jersey. She earned the endorsement of Senate President Steve Sweeney, a close Norcross ally, and the backing of six of the eight county Democratic committees in the 2nd District.

South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III testifies before the New Jersey Senate select committee on Economic Growth Strategies established to review the state's tax incentive programs in Trenton on November 18, 2019.

But a restive coalition of grassroots activists and public-employee unions who have publicly clashed with the Norcross operation coalesced around Kennedy, who is married to Patrick J. Kennedy, a retired congressman from Rhode Island and son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Kennedy also attracted the support of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been locked in his own cold war with the South Jersey Democrats, especially Sweeney. Murphy, who grew up in the Boston suburbs revering the Kennedy family, has said he was inspired to enter politics because of them.

For Murphy, Kennedy became a vehicle to deal a blow to the Norcross machine. And Tuesday night, Kennedy — backed by a huge cash advantage drawn from the Kennedy network — delivered.

"What we saw is that if you put some resources together with progressive energy, you can decimate the competition,'' said Sue Altman, state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the progressive movement's leading figure.

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A Norcross defeat

Some observers argued that the race was not a clear-cut defeat for the Norcross-Sweeney operation, which has extended its reach over the past decade into North Jersey.

For one, Norcross' chief priority has always been the state Legislature, not Congress. This time, his machine was also facing an unusual foe in the Kennedy brand, which has melted the hearts of Democrats for 60 years. The machine found itself trudging uphill in its own backyard.

And for all Kennedy's positioning as the progressive outsider — and her attacks on Harrison as a pawn of a party kingpin — Kennedy teamed up with an Atlantic City operative, Craig Callaway, who spent 3½ years in prison on bribery related charges.

Callaway was instrumental in lining up support in Atlantic City and in seizing the prized endorsement of the Atlantic County Democratic Party. The outsider played a shrewd inside game

But for some observers, it was hard not to see Harrison's loss as the latest in a series of setbacks for an indomitable operation that had seemed, until recently, to be at the zenith of its power.

Last year, Republicans defeated two machine-backed Democrats for the Assembly and won a Senate race in a legislative district that overlaps the 2nd Congressional District.

Republicans also grabbed two seats in another state legislative district that stretches into Burlington County. There are other political troubles that have raised eyebrows: Norcross lost a back-channel fight with Murphy's forces over the state party chairman's post. And the findings of a special investigative panel probing tax incentives steered to Norcross-linked companies in Camden have drawn the attention of law enforcement authorities.

"George is not accustomed to losing, and more significantly, he does not lose in races where he has made large investments, as he did in these instances," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University. "Add in his troubles with the tax incentives, and it is shaping up to be a very bad streak for him. He should never be counted out — that would be a serious mistake. But this is a setback, and it's time for him to go back and maybe consolidate his power closer to home."

In a statement, Norcross congratulated Kennedy and struck a note of unity for the fall campaign.

Camden resident Sue Altman, is removed by New Jersey State Police from the New Jersey Senate select committee on Economic Growth Strategies in Trenton on November 18, 2019.

"As I said months ago, I look forward to supporting the Democratic nominee in the general election," Norcross said. "It is important that we retake the Second Congressional seat and continue to advance a pro-worker, pro-reform, and pro-civil justice agenda."

He added, "I look forward to working with Amy, Governor Murphy, Senators Booker and Menendez and every Democrat and every voter in the District who is committed to our shared values in order to take this seat back and build on the Democratic majority in Congress."

That said, the bitter fighting with the South Jersey machine operatives still linger, Altman said. She said she was happy to discuss strategy to defeat Van Drew in the fall, but not on Norcross' terms. Nor would Altman follow his playbook, she said.

"He doesn’t own this win. We own this win,'' she said.

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey’ political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into the Garden State's political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: Twitter: @politicalstile