As New Jersey’s Democratic Primaries Take Center Stage, Some Progressives Feel Squeezed Out

Tanzie Youngblood, a Democrat running in Tuesday’s New Jersey Primary election for a seat in the House of Representatives, spoke with a customer at a diner in Vineland, N.J. — her second diner visit that day.

BRIDGETON, N.J. — At this stage in her Democratic primary campaign, Tanzie Youngblood has mastered the politician’s art of interrupting strangers in diners to talk about politics. Approaching slowly and clutching a campaign pamphlet with her image, she leaned over and quickly shifted the conversation from what to order to universal health care.

“It affects us all, Republicans and Democrats,” she said to Naomi Ingraldi, 52, as a waiter placed an oversized omelet on the table at the Bridgeton Family Diner.

But then Ms. Youngblood, a retired teacher, ended her pitch with a purposeful line: “I’m not on the traditional line, but I am a Democrat, you just gotta find me,” she said. “Find me on that ballot!”

In the final days before Tuesday’s primary election, this seemingly esoteric request has become essential for Democratic candidates like Ms. Youngblood who did not win the coveted county party endorsements that place their name in the first column on primary ballots.

With New Jersey central to the Democratic effort to regain control of the House of Representatives, many progressive candidates whose views put them in the Senator Bernie Sanders wing of the party have found themselves largely shunned by a party establishment that has instead focused on endorsing candidates officials believe have broader appeal.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national arm of the party focused on House races, also made endorsements before any primary votes were cast in four of the state’s five Republican-held districts.

The result has left many progressives frustrated that the party is still engaged in an internal feud two years after the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Sanders deeply divided Democrats — a feud that could alienate a slice of the party’s base in a year when Democrats will need stronger-than-usual turnout.

“I don’t think that the Democratic Party is doing a good job of reconciling the two souls of the party,” Giovanni Sce, a 55-year-old software engineer from Summit, said at an event in support of Peter Jacob, another progressive candidate running in a different congressional district from Ms. Youngblood. “If they want to keep the concept of primaries, it should be much more hands-off than what they’ve done recently in New Jersey this election.”

Of course, many of the Democratic front-runners in the New Jersey primaries have run strong campaigns, raising significant money, grabbing key endorsements from party luminaries and attracting vast grass-roots support.

In the Seventh Congressional District, in the western part of the state, Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, quickly amassed more than a million dollars and was recently endorsed by Action Together New Jersey, one of the largest progressive groups in the state. He won every county line in his district.

In the 11th Congressional District, which stretches across northern New Jersey, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor who has raised more than more than $2.8 million, emerged from the grass-roots group of protesters seeking to unseat the Republican incumbent, Representative Rodney Frelignhuysen, and is considered a future star of the party. She, too, won every county party endorsement in the district.

And in Ms. Youngblood’s race, the Second Congressional District in the southernmost part of the state, her Democratic opponent, Jeff Van Drew, a moderate state senator who had an A rating from the National Rifle Association, won the support of George Norcross, an influential political power broker in South Jersey, and earned the county endorsement in all eight counties in the district.

These districts are considered must-wins for Democrats if they stand a chance at taking back the House. Many state party leaders point to the 2016 victory of Representative Josh Gottheimer, whose district had not seen a Democrat win since the Great Depression, as a model for others to follow. Mr. Gottheimer is a centrist and a prolific fund-raiser who has cobbled together a base of support among moderate Republicans and independent voters that has made his re-election this November likely.

Even though New Jersey is becoming an increasingly Democratic state, and Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by more than 800,000, party officials believe that winning over the state’s large unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans is the surest path to victory and that pushing progressive policies like free higher education that would likely require additional taxes could be a losing strategy.

But while that approach may make tactical sense, it has rankled many grass-roots progressives still stewing over what they consider the party’s orchestrated campaign to undermine Mr. Sanders.

With that memory still fresh, they see the same sort of systematic heavy-handedness playing out in the New Jersey primary, centered largely around the endorsement system known commonly as “the line.” It refers to the coveted position on the ballot, the first column that falls under the big-name candidates at the top, often a presidential or a Senate candidate (this year it is Senator Robert Menendez). Many voters who may not be as invested in local races will simply vote the line and tick off the boxes under the major candidate.

Winning the line is a messy process, requiring the endorsement of a county party organization, with each county having its own process. In some counties, the chair decides whom to endorse, while in other counties conventions are held in which elected and appointed officials vote to determine an endorsement. These gatherings are often criticized because of political gamesmanship and a lack of transparency.

The grousing about the process this year has started to draw national attention.

“What I hear my sisters and brothers in New Jersey saying is what I hear all over the country, is that we don’t have the right people who have the power,” Nina Turner, the president of Our Revolution, a political group spun out of Mr. Sanders’ presidential campaign, said at an event in Piscataway, N.J. “And you’re right. Any old blue just won’t do. That’s my motto.”

Adding to the frustration was the early endorsements by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, though officials said the group’s support was only offered after candidates had received the clear backing of local officials.

“Our New Jersey candidates have impressive profiles and records of service, deep grass-roots support, and they are running the strongest campaigns these districts have seen in years, and in some cases, decades,” said Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the organization.

Facing an uphill battle with less money than more established candidates and no support from county or national party officials, some candidates are becoming creative.

Jim Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman who gained unexpected notoriety after Gov. Chris Christie told him to “sit down and shut up” when Mr. Keady shouted questions during a news conference, is running for Congress even though he doesn’t have a single county endorsement. So on a recent Wednesday, he and about a dozen volunteers camped out in a Wegmans food court and hand-wrote letters to registered Democrats in his district, asking for their vote and pointing out where his name was on the ballot.

Wearing a blue apron with her name, Tamara Harris, a social worker and former financial analyst who is running against Ms. Sherrill, has been getting up before dawn to canvass at train and bus stations, making 20 early-morning visits in recent weeks.

“This is a disruptive time in the Democratic Party and the democratic process,” she said.

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