Last November, Congressman Jon Runyan (R-NJ3) announced his retirement from Congress at the end of this year. In February, Congressman Rob Andrews (D-NJ1) followed him. Both Runyan and Andrews were minor surprises as they seemed to have their eyes on something beyond serving in Congress. However, Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ12) seemed like someone who was up for the fights in Congress and even ran for U.S. Senator last year in the special election to fill the vacancy left by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg. But, less than a month after Andrews made his announcement; Holt became the third incumbent congressman from New Jersey to retire to this election cycle.
Holt would state,
Congress, even with its frustrations, is the greatest instrument for justice and human welfare in the world. The stories trying to puzzle out why someone would do something else are based on this rather narrow way of thinking that the only purpose for a member of Congress is to be re-elected. I've never viewed it that way, and I think everybody who’s worked with me knows that I think there are a lot of things that I can and should be doing.
With Holt stepping aside, most expected a wide open Democratic primary to ensue. A trio of Democrats from the State Legislature would emerge: state Senator Linda Greenstein (D-14), Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-17), and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15).
In a crowded field, each endorsement is that much more important. Watson Coleman would get the first one in the race with the Mercer County Democratic Committee putting their support behind her.
With the race ahead in mind, Watson Coleman would express;
We’re going to work very hard. We’re not going to take anything for granted or assume anything. We’re going to have boots on the ground. We have a very good team and we’re going to prepare for the primary election and then look forward to the general election. We have some serious issues in Washington. We need to make sure that trade agreements are fair, that our workers here have an equal opportunity to earn money and be a part of manufacturing here in the United States, particularly right here in the 12th District. I’ve never shied away from leading the fights worth fighting, even when it meant bucking the leadership of my own party. As your Congresswoman, I will continue the fight for progressive issues against right-wing forces waging multiple wars on women, the working class and middle class.
Greenstein has been just as passionate as Watson Coleman on the campaign trail this cycle voicing,
I've never shied away from leading the fights worth fighting, even when it meant bucking the leadership of my own party. As your Congresswoman, I will continue the fight for progressive issues against right-wing forces waging multiple wars on women, the working class and middle class.
Not to be outdone with county Democratic support, Chivukula would garner the backing of the Somerset County Democratic Committee. While Greenstein would lock up the endorsement of the Middlesex County Democratic Committee. With each candidate getting the support of one county's Democrats, Watson Coleman would pick up the crucial support of the Union County Democratic Committee. This county committee was viewed as one to watch for what candidate would get their support.
Beyond the three members of the State Legislature running, there is also Andrew Zwicker and Frank Gibson in the mix on the Democratic side and Alieta Eck on the Republican side. Eck fell short against 3rd Congressional Republican nominee Steve Lonegan last year in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in the special election.
As the trio from the State Legislature emerged as the front runners, another trio would step aside and out of consideration as the race began to settle in. Among the trio was state Senator Shirley Turner (D-15). The three conceding candidates would all throw their support behind Watson Coleman.
Turner would go on to describe,
I firmly believe that a woman’s place is in the House (of Representatives), and New Jersey has waited far too long to send a female representative to Congress. It is most important that we regain that voice, which represents almost 52 percent of New Jersey’s population. I also believe that the seat should be held by a Mercer County resident. I am supporting our Assemblywoman, Bonnie Watson Coleman. She shares our core Democratic values and has demonstrated strong leadership in the legislature throughout her political career. She has been my running mate and has served as Assembly majority leader and state Democratic chair. Her leadership experience locally and statewide has familiarized her with the needs of New Jersey and the 12th congressional district. She has also worked tirelessly for Democrats at all levels of government; she has earned our support, deserves the nomination, and will win in November.
Not too surprisingly, Greenstein would pick up the support of her district mates: Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo (D-14) and Dan Benson (D-14).
As the race has continued, it would not take too long before Watson Coleman and Greenstein began to exchange words. Watson Coleman would call Greenstein a follower which led Greenstein to simply call the remarks shameful. It started to look like a two person battle at the top as each female legislator were making their respective case.
Watson Coleman would receive a boost as she has attempted to separate herself with the endorsement of former Governor Jim Florio.
Like many throughout New Jersey I was surprised to hear Rush Holt would not be running for re-election. Bonnie Watson Coleman has been a strong, determined leader in the Democratic Party for many years and I believe she is the perfect choice to represent the 12th Congressional District. Bonnie has always been on the right side of the issues that matter most for New Jersey families, fighting to increase the minimum wage and working every day in the Legislature for critical education funding and against cuts to women’s health care. Bonnie has never shied away from the tough fights and has always stood on the front lines battling for her constituents. We need that type of leadership in Washington.
Joining Florio in supporting Watson Coleman has been former state Senator and Democratic nominee for governor Barbara Buono. Buono still has her 2013 loss to Governor Chris Christie on her mind and the lack of total Democratic support continues to leave a bitter taste in her mouth. That is something she would comment on in her endorsement.
Bonnie Watson Coleman was there. Rush Holt was there. But there were a lot of people who weren't. I want to reiterate the importance of the decision you all are about to make.
Joining Florio and Buono in showing their support for Watson Coleman would be the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
For the PCCC,
Bonnie Watson Coleman was New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader and has spent her life as an outspoken fighter for the poor and powerless. As Chris Christie's top critic, she was the first legislator to call for the scandal-ridden governor's resignation recently on MSNBC.
Two other left leaning groups would too throw their support towards Watson Coleman as she has emerged as the progressive candidate to replace a progressive in Holt.
The endorsements would continue as Greenstein and Watson Coleman would pick up various local endorsements. Watson Coleman would along the way pick up a couple major endorsement. These would come from Congressmen Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ10) and Albio Sires (D-NJ8).
Congressman Payne would state,
Assemblywoman Watson Coleman is someone who has always made it very clear where she stands on the issues. Whenever our party has needed to take up the fight for our shared Democratic principles Bonnie has always been among the first to answer the call, and that is exactly the type of representative New Jersey needs in Congress as we move forward. Bonnie has long prioritized job creation, women’s health care and the need for stricter gun safety measures, the direction and future of which are currently under attack in Washington by the Tea Party. I can think of no better legislator to fill the void left behind by Rep. Rush Holt’s decision to not run again, and I am wholeheartedly endorsing her for the Democratic nomination on June 3rd.
In response to Payne's endorsement, Watson Coleman would voice;
Congressman Payne, Jr.’s entire career has been highlighted by his commitment to public service and his willingness to stand and fight for our children, our seniors and our middle class families. I have known the Congressman and his family for more years than I care to count and I consider it a great honor to receive his endorsement. I believe there is nothing more important than working to ensure that health care reform fulfills its maximum potential, people across the country all receive equal pay for equal work, guns are removed off our streets and we fight back against the Tea Party to preserve and protect Social Security and Medicare. It is my full intention to fight for the successful completion of these efforts in Congress.
Having worked with Bonnie in the Assembly and seen first hand what a force she is as a leader in the Democratic Party, I can confidently say there is no one better to fill the position being vacated by Congressman Rush Holt representing the 12th Congressional District. Bonnie has consistently demonstrated the tenacity and leadership required to introduce and implement initiatives prioritized by Democrats in her district and across the state and I believe those are qualities that would serve her well in Washington. Bonnie Watson Coleman’s abilities as a legislator and as someone always willing to fight without hesitation for our Democratic principles make her the best candidate to win the Democratic Primary on June 3rd, which is why I am endorsing her today.
Watson Coleman would respond to Sires' endorsement by exclaiming,
Congressman Sires has been a long-time friend and a true leader in the Democratic Party for years. His work on behalf of the children and families in his District and across New Jersey has always been his number one priority and I am very proud to receive his endorsement. The work of people in Washington like Albio Sires is what makes me feel so resolute in my support of the priorities of President Obama and Democrats in Congress and I look forward to the opportunity to work with him to ensure health care fulfills its promise, we increase gun safety measures and everyone receives equal pay for equal work. The fight for our progressive principles against the Tea Party is not one that can be taken lightly and I look forward to working with other strong Democrats like Albio Sires towards those efforts.
With endorsements and exchanges of heated words shaping the race's complexity, a Monmouth University poll down the stretch of the primary cycle paints a picture of how close the outcome might be. The poll shows Greenstein and Watson Coleman neck and neck with Chivukula and Zwicker in the distance. Greenstein has the support of 25% of likely Democratic voters while Watson Coleman has the support of 24% of likely Democratic voters. Chivukula has 11% support and Zwicker has 6% support. Possibly the biggest number is the 34% who are undecided. That is an unusually high number with less than 2 weeks to go when this poll was taken. That number of swing voters only adds to the openness of the race as Greenstein and Watson Coleman especially grasp for every vote possible.
As Patrick Murray, Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, would outline;
Despite the very tight race, one thing does seem certain. New Jersey’s Congressional delegation will include a woman for the first time in twelve years.
Based on the state of the race, either Greenstein or Watson Coleman will be the likely Democratic nominee and face Eck in the general election. New Jersey looks poised to send the first woman from the state to Congress since Republican Marge Roukema left office in 2003. It would be only the sixth female member of Congress from the state in its history.
Similarly to the county committee's endorsements, the polls shows each candidate leading in the county they have the Democratic support of. The closest polling numbers come from the swing county of Union with Watson Coleman edging Greenstein by a 21 to 18 margin with 50% of the county's Democrats still undecided.
The importance of Union County was echoed by Murray:
Union County may be the lynchpin in this race. There is a hotly contested municipal election in Plainfield that should spur turnout.
As Murray would add,
Watson-Coleman has the strongest base support going into the final two weeks of this campaign and has virtually locked up Mercer County, which is the biggest prize in this four-county district. Greenstein’s success will hinge on being able to turn out less enthusiastic voters, particularly in her home county of Middlesex where she already has a formidable lead. The wild card in this race is Union County. The voters there are largely uncommitted and are less familiar with any of the candidates. The extent to which local backers, especially in Plainfield, get out the vote for Watson-Coleman could be the key to victory.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, would also add in terms of the state of the race:
Bonnie has very solid, strong support. But Linda Greenstein is a phenomenal campaigner. She is an old-school style shoe-leather politician. I think it will be down to the wire.
As primary day nears, each candidate has been looking to make closing arguments to voters.
For Watson Coleman:
It’s important to me that there is a voice that comes from the lens of an experienced woman, and it’s important that there is a voice that comes from the lens of an experienced minority. The 12th District would be fortunate to have a representative with both those perspectives.
I have many, many years of great experience that lead up to this position. It’s a very natural step for me.
I think I bring a different perspective to the whole congressional process. Congress needs engineers and scientists, and I speak multiple languages and have traveled the world.
I’ve got the same narrative as Rush Holt. He showed that somebody who is a scientist and a teacher and uses data to make policy decisions can be highly successful.
The race to replace Congressman Holt has provided a heated and contested race in the 12th Congressional District. Eck should emerge as the GOP nominee but whether Watson Coleman or Greenstein emerges as the Democratic nominee is what this race has been shaped by. Chivukula and to some extent Zwicker could play spoiler for one or the other as vote totals in all four counties will be at a premium importance. Who will make the stronger closing arguments? That might be what ultimately separates either Watson Coleman or Greenstein from the other for Democratic voters.