New Jersey's byzantine primary system and a series of longstanding rivalries among Democratic leaders has turned the race to fill a rare open seat in Congress into a four-way free-for-all.
Rep. Donald Payne's (D-N.J.) death last month opened up his Newark-based seat for the first time in two decades. Payne's son, Newark City Council President Don Payne, had long been considered heir to the safely Democratic seat. The younger Payne, who also serves as an Essex County freeholder, quickly garnered support among Essex County Democrats, a group led by his cousin Phil Thigpen. But three other Essex candidates quickly entered the race, shattering the Essex vote -- which constitutes the majority of the district -- and gathering support in the other two counties.
Newark Councilman Ron Rice had been considering a primary challenge to the older Payne and formally entered the race after the congressman's death, building on support in Newark's west ward and the suburbs, and quickly grabbing endorsements in the south ward, which has traditionally been a Payne stronghold. State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) has support in Hudson County and is trying to solidify backing in Union County. Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, considered a dark horse, has been building support in his Essex community.
Even in the divided race, Payne remains the frontrunner.
"It's Don's race to lose," one Essex County Democratic insider told HuffPost. "He'll have more money."
Gill's entry into the race has changed the dynamic of what has traditionally been seen as an Essex County seat. While an Essex resident, Gill was able to attract the backing of the Hudson County Democratic Party and powerful state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City). Twenty-five percent of the district resides in the Hudson communities of Jersey City and Bayonne, and Hudson Democrats and Cunningham can provide Gill with manpower in the two cities. Cunningham, the widow of Jersey City's first African-American mayor, has a history as a strong vote-getter in the local African-American community.
Gill is also close to state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), who dominates the Union County Democratic Party, which has chosen to remain neutral in the race, a rarity in the Democratic stronghold. Sources have told HuffPost that Union County Democrats want to avoid forcing Gill's rivals to join forces with other primary candidates for county freeholder who do not enjoy local party support.
Under New Jersey's primary system, local party organizations can grant "the line" to candidates, which confers preferential ballot placement and consequently a treasure trove of votes. Payne's backing by the party in Essex and Gill's backing by Hudson Democrats will place each below President Barack Obama and Sen. Bob Menendez (D) on the primary ballot in the respective counties. Candidates without party backing must align themselves with other candidates running for county offices to gain better placement, or face having their name placed off to the side of the ballot. Union County's open primary will bracket all four candidates together.
Rice has the backing of several elected officials in the south ward, Payne's home base, along with that of former Gov. Dick Codey (D) and his allies in suburban Essex County. Codey has ties to Rice's father, a state senator, and long-running feuds with both Essex County Democrats and Gill. Rice is also likely to pick up a key Union County endorsement from Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley (D), a close ally.
Gill is running on her record as a progressive and her distance from Essex County Democrats. Gill is arguing that the district needs non-Newark representation, and highlighting the fact that New Jersey has not sent a woman to Congress in a decade and has not sent a Democratic woman to Congress since the 1970s.
"I have run off the line in Essex. There are people who think I am too independent," Gill told HuffPost. "I won my Senate seat off the line the second time."
Mayor Smith told HuffPost that he is focusing his campaign on economic development and education, and cites his lobbying of federal leaders on urban issues. He said he does not see himself as a spoiler in the race, noting that his lack of party backing will help him in Congress.
"I am not controlled by the party," he said. "I will work with everybody."
Payne and Rice could not be reached for comment.
UPDATE: 4/20 3:00 p.m. -- Newark Councilman Ron Rice remains confident in his ability to pull off a victory in the race, despite the lack of county party backing. Rice told HuffPost Friday afternoon that he believes the fractured nature of the race will help him and that he sees the open primary in Union County as a benefit, noting his outreach into that county's towns. He confirmed that Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley will be backing him and said that he will receive the endorsement of Union County Freeholder Chris Hudak, the Democratic chairman in Linden.
Rice also downplayed the role of party organization in a race for Congress.
"The party has little to do with this race," he said. "There are no jobs or contracts at stake with a race for Congress."