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Opinion: Cards are stacked against U.S. Rep. Rush Holt in Democratic Senate primary

Rep. Rush Holt, who recently won re-election to an eighth term in Congress, faces an uphill battle in the upcoming Democratic Senate primary to replace Frank Lautenberg. Let me begin by saying I intend to vote for Rep. Holt in the primary. I really like my rocket scientist congressman. Based on his intellect, demeanor and, most important, his record in Congress, I think he is New Jersey’s best choice for the United States Senate.

Rush Holt has acknowledged that he has been a workhorse rather than a show horse since entering Congress in 1999. He has a very strong progressive record that is consistent with New Jersey “blue” state values. He has been strongly pro-environment, a vigorous supporter of providing additional public health-care options, an advocate for increasing access to college education for middle-class families, an articulate supporter of providing early childhood education and a longtime opponent of privatizing Social Security.

Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against Rep. Holt in the primary. There are a variety of realities that he has to deal with. The extremely high cost of garnering name recognition, because New Jersey is divided between the very expensive New York City and Philadelphia television markets; the extensive visibility and front-runner status of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker; the omnipotent role that power broker George Norcross III and his cronies, Steve Adubato Sr. (Newark North Ward legend) and Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. (Essex County executive), have in both South Jersey and Essex County; and the candidacies of Rep. Frank Pallone and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, all serve to make it extremely difficult for Rep. Holt to beat Booker.

Mayor Booker starts off way ahead in South Jersey, because of the deal he struck with George Norcross. In Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Passaic counties, he is ahead because, in each of these counties, he has been endorsed by the Regular Democratic Organization and will be on their line on the ballot.

Rep. Pallone will have a huge advantage in Monmouth County, which he has represented for many years.

Booker and Pallone have larger campaign war chests that will enable them to buy more television, radio and newspaper advertisements; do more high-tech telephone targeting and mount a more comprehensive, well-funded, get-out-the vote effort.

When it comes to primaries, money matters a great deal, especially when a candidate is not well-known.

Rep. Holt is very smart. I have no doubt that he recognizes that winning the primary for the U.S. Senate is going to be a real challenge. In a video produced by his campaign, Holt alludes to an appearance he made on the game show “Jeopardy!” in which he beat Watson, the IBM supercomputer: “I’m going to beat Cory Booker and win this campaign like I beat Watson on ‘Jeopardy!’ ... one answer at a time.”

Rush Holt realizes that not enough folks will watch the candidate debates for him to win the campaign by answering questions better than his opponents, and he doesn’t have enough funds to plaster the airwaves with spots demonstrating his superior intellect. Does he have a secret campaign strategy, significant unexpected endorsements, or does he think the Booker candidacy will implode for some reason? I don’t know.

I do know that the primary is an opportunity for Rep. Holt to show Democrats statewide that there is a political leader in New Jersey who is not afraid to be seen as favoring governmental activism to help those who are hurting through no fault of their own; who is deeply concerned that there are New Jerseyans having a difficult time finding higher-than-minimum-wage jobs with decent health benefits; who is proud to be linked with the legacy of FDR, LBJ, JFK, RFK and Paul Wellstone; and who is not anti-labor, anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion or anti-gun control.

In some ways, Rush Holt is the ultimate anti-Chris Christie. Gov. Christie has been described by one journalist as “unrelentingly brutal.” Rush Holt is “unrelentingly rational.” He is competent and conciliatory rather than combative and confrontational.
I would really like to see Rush Holt pull off a major upset and defeat the Booker-Norcross juggernaut. If that doesn’t happen, I hope he finishes a strong second and substantially boosts his statewide name recognition and his influence within the New Jersey Democratic Party.

While I have no idea whether Rep. Holt would ever consider giving up his legislative career for an executive position, if he did, he’d be my choice to be the Democratic candidate for governor in 2017.

One of the keys to Holt’s showing in the upcoming primary will be whether he will be able to rack up huge pluralities in the four counties that make up the 12th Congressional District. In defeating Republican businessman Eric Beck by a 69 percent to 29 percent margin in 2012, he won all four counties by huge margins: Mercer (77 percent), Union (73 percent), Somerset (69 percent) and Middlesex (62 percent). To have any chance of an upset, Rep. Holt will need to put up at least Mercer County numbers in the remaining three counties. This, of course, would start with a big victory in the City of Trenton.

Rush Holt would make a truly outstanding, practical, progressive U.S. senator. I also think he possesses the leadership skills and vision to make a terrific governor in the tradition of Richard J. Hughes.