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Opinion: Fierce race underway to replace U.S. Rep. Rush Holt in 12th District

The 12th Congressional District is heavily Democratic. The winner of the Democratic primary will be the odds-on favorite to replace Rep. Rush Holt. There are three heavyweights vying for the seat: Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset).

The 12th District is composed of the southern half of Middlesex, Mercer (except for Robbinsville and Hamilton Township), four municipalities in Somerset County (Bound Brook, Franklin Township, Manville and South Bound Brook), and three municipalities in Union County (Fanwood, Plainfield and Scotch Plains). Mercer County has slightly more registered Democrats than does Middlesex County, 57,175 to 55,777.

The two leading contenders are Watson Coleman and Greenstein. Greenstein is the early favorite. Assemblyman Chivukula, the Legislature’s first and only Indian-American member, does not have a large enough base in Somerset County, even if he does well enough among Indian voters in East and West Windsor to offset the geographic advantages of Watson Coleman and Greenstein. If Chivukula bows out, it would be a crucial blow to the Watson Coleman candidacy, as he would probably support Greenstein for a pledge of her support if Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) decides not to run in the future. This district contains 12 municipalities from Middlesex County where Greenstein has been endorsed by the Middlesex County Democrats and a plethora of municipal officials.

Watson Coleman, who is endorsed by the Mercer Democrats, is an underdog in the race for many of the same reasons that Holt was badly defeated in his run for the Senate by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Barbara Buono was crushed by Chris Christie.

The first reason is that Mercer County has almost no political clout in the New Jersey Democratic Party, controlled by George Norcross III. The Mercer Democrats have not been able to forge an alliance with an adjacent county that could provide Mercer sufficient electoral weight to make a difference in a race that covers multiple counties.

The second reason is rooted in the nuts and bolts of get-out-the-vote activities. In order for Watson Coleman to have any chance of defeating Greenstein, she will need to put up really big numbers in Mercer County — not the modest 53 percent of the vote that Holt received in his Senate race. Watson Coleman’s task is complicated by the fact that on May 13, Trenton will hold an election to replace Mayor Tony Mack. She will first need to navigate her way through the crowded primary field without alienating one camp or another, and then hope that voter fatigue does not set in and there is an extraordinary turnout for her in the June 3 primary. In the 2010 Trenton mayoral general election, turnout was an anemic 26 percent. Watson Coleman needs to come out of Trenton with a 10,000 plurality, which is close to the total voter turnout in the 2010 mayoral election.

The third reason relates to the 1,000-pound gorilla in New Jersey politics: George Norcross. Watson Coleman was once the Assembly majority leader. She lost her leadership position because she supported politicians since disposed of by Norcross-Sweeney forces. While Norcross and his allies may give the appearance of being neutral in the Greenstein vs. Watson Coleman race, the building trades unions, an integral element of Norcross’ power circle, will be behind Greenstein, because a congressional win would open up her Senate seat for Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo. DeAngelo, Greenstein’s longtime running mate, is assistant business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and president of the Mercer-Burlington Building Trades Council. There will be lots of pressure on Norcross and Sen. Sweeney, at a minimum, to funnel financial support to the Greenstein candidacy.

If the Watson Coleman campaign determines that the hurdles she faces are too much to overcome, it may have no choice but to do what the Buono campaign failed to do until the very end: Run a campaign against bossism in New Jersey. Having been a former state party chair, it will be a difficult strategy for her to adopt, but it could be her only possible path to victory. To pull off this strategy, a couple of things must happen:

• Barbara Buono, who was enthusiastically endorsed by Watson Coleman, needs to become a vocal supporter of Watson Coleman and show how the party, under the yoke of George Norcross, abandoned her. This could keep reputable entities such as Emily’s List from supporting Greenstein over Watson Coleman, if they see Greenstein as having been a less out-front supporter of Buono.

• Prominent Democrats who can endorse without fear of retaliation need to support Watson Coleman. I’m thinking of folks such as former Govs. Byrne and McGreevey and Rep. Holt.

• Booker, who is indebted to Norcross for cutting a deal with Gov. Christie that resulted in him getting a very weak Republican opponent in last year’s U.S. Senate race, needs to remain neutral in the race.

• Watson-Coleman needs the support of the police and fire unions.

The race to replace Holt is going to be fierce. It will have many subtle nuances and sub-plots and will tell us a lot about where politics in New Jersey is headed post-Chris Christie.