Democrat Amy Kennedy of Brigantine appears to have won the Democratic nomination for the 2nd Congressional District after her chief opponent Brigid Callahan Harrison conceded shortly after polls closed Tuesday.
It was an Election Day like no other, with county Boards of Election working feverishly to process tens of thousands more vote-by-mail ballots than ever before. Results had just started being posted when the Harrison campaign conceded and called Kennedy to congratulate her.
Final results in the state's first mostly-vote-by-mail election were expected to take days, if not longer, to be confirmed.
Harrison's concession came so soon and with such a small fraction of ballots counted, it was unclear why she felt the need to act so early. She and Kennedy were considered the leading candidates, with Will Cunningham, a former Capitol Hill staffer, of Vineland as an active contender.
The winner will try to unseat freshman Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, who was elected as a Democrat and switched parties to Republican in December after voting against impeaching President Donald J. Trump.
In a short speech to supporters on YouTube, Harrison called for all Democrats to unite behind Kennedy as the fight now moves to unseating Van Drew.
"Let’s be clear. While this is a tough moment for me, tonight is a great moment for the Democratic party." Harrison said.
Harrison, of Longport, is a college professor backed by State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem and Camden powerbroker George Norcross.
"I'd like to congratulate Amy Kennedy on her victory tonight. I'd also like to commend Brigid Harrison and Will Cunningham for the strong campaigns they waged," said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman. "We look forward to ... doing everything we can to make Jeff Van Drew a one-term congressman."
Other candidates were West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, an author and motivational speaker; and Robert Turkavage, of Brigantine, a retired FBI agent.
New Jersey Spotlight reported that district-wide with about 30% of the vote counted in eight counties, Kennedy had about 60% of the vote, Harrison 25% and Cunningham 12%.
As of 8 p.m. in Atlantic County with 9,000 of about 40,000 ballots counted, Kennedy had 3,135 to Harrison's 501 and Cunningham's 266.
In Cape May County, with 6,006 Democratic votes counted, Kennedy had 3,517 votes to Harrison's 1,753 and Cunningham's 490; and in Cumberland County Kennedy had 2,623 to Harrison's 1,417 and Cunningham's 742.
"Seven months ago when Jeff Van Drew abandoned the people of South Jersey and pledged his undying support to Donald Trump, I knew I had to step up and do something," Kennedy said at a celebration at her Northfield headquarters late Tuesday night, where she was introduced by supporter Gov. Phil Murphy.
"So my message to Jeff Van Drew tonight is -- we have had enough and we demand better. ... We have had enough of you and Donald Trump," Kennedy said.
Kennedy is married to Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman and mental health advocate who is a son of the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy. A mental health advocate and former teacher backed by Gov. Phil Murphy and the Atlantic City political powerbroker Craig Callaway, she had a financial advantage that translated into significantly more spending on television ads and mailings.
While Van Drew had a primary opponent in Bob Patterson, of Ocean City, he does have the full support of the Republican Party organizations and has not had to run an aggressive primary campaign, said John Froonjian, the executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.
Spotlight also reported Van Drew got 80% of the vote in the GOP primary district-wide, with 30% of the vote counted.
Vote-by-mail ballots must be accepted for a week after polls close, as long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.
On Monday night the Atlantic County Board of Elections said it had already received about 34,000 vote-by-mail ballots, of which about 29,000 had been "zipped and stripped." That means the signatures had been checked, the certificates removed and envelopes opened.
On Tuesday about another 2,000 ballots were delivered to the board via the mail, said Board Chair Lynn Caterson.
The County Clerk had mailed out about 105,000 ballots, so the return rate was already about 30%.
Not all voters embraced vote-by-mail.
Recent Rowan University graduate Leia Calabrese, 22, of Northfield, voted with a provisional paper ballot Tuesday at the polls at Northfield Community School.
"I got it (a vote-by-mail ballot) in the mail, but decided I'd rather vote in person," Calabrese said after voting at the polls. "It just made me feel like I really voted."
Gov. Phil Murphy moved the primary date to July 7 from June 2 in order to give counties more time to plan