Fight of the Week: Donovan v. Pascrell

Fight of the Week

Bergen County Executive Kathe Donovan v. U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9)

The most-watched race of the season after Labor Day will be Donovan versus Bergen County Freeholder (and former Paramus Mayor) James Tedesco. Republicans are confident that Donovan’s mix of money and name ID and Obama backlash will blunt the Democrats’ attack. But Dems are trying to take advantage of the fact that the popular Pascrell will be on the ticket for the first time in a Bergen County executive’s race and in position to fight house to house in Donovan’s home portion of the sprawling county.

The Scene

South Bergen: crunched together firehouses, little league ballparks and Catholic Churches reluctant to let go of the pre-Pope John XXIII era, it’s Bayonne west, classically composed of that New Jersey conglomerate that is equal parts Irish, Italian and Polish. Mix in a growing Hispanic population and you’ve got a picture of the kinds of storylines that make up this fig leaf shaped portion of the behemothic county that tickles the back of Essex County’s neck.

Combatants

Kathe Donovan

Running for a second term as county executive, an Irish blue collar GOP brand name from Lyndhurst, Donovan has run for office and won since the 1980s. She’s a veteran of the assembly and former clerk, whose friendly face is more than well known in these parts. A moderate, pro-choice Republican, she easily checkmates Democrats’ attempts to broad-brush the GOP as a misfit collection of Tea Party toadies and Christiebots.

Bill Pascrell

If you throw him in turnout gear and toss him on the back of a fire truck in Lyndhurst, he’s not going to get tangled in the fire hose and embarrass anyone. The gravelly-voiced tough guy Democrat from Paterson doesn’t have the deep South Bergen roots that Donovan has, but he did chew into Steve Rothman’s Bergen base by racking up better than expected numbers in South Bergen in his storied 2012 campaign. He can big brother Tedesco, too, as the county executive candidate’s former teacher.

What’s at Stake

Executive control of the most important political county in the State of New Jersey. Donovan wants to maintain Republicans’ toehold in New Jersey’s critical swing county, while Pascrell seeks greater incursion into that naturally receptive portion of the 12th Congressional District least familiar to him while playing the hero role for Bergen Dems.

Key Dynamics

Democrats see a way to prevent Donovan from getting her usual plurality of 7,000 to 8,000 South Bergen votes, in part by employing the Patersonian baseball freak into the Little League bloodstreams of her home base. They are also banking on a damaged GOP brand to turn Hispanic voters toward Democrats. But the GOP sees 2006 all over again, with Obama this time, not Bush, in the role of national catastrophe. Intrigue abounds on the ground. The same party players dislike one another more than they hate the enemy. Pascrell certainly nurses more grievances with some Bergen Democrats than with Donovan, who’s never picked a fight with him. Remember, it was state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Bergen Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato wearing Batman and Rothman cowls and capes in what turned out to be their disastrous primary crusade to turn back Pascrell in 2012. Questions remain about whether the congressman ever exacted full payback, but here they all are now in the same foxhole: Pascrell, Stellato and Sarlo in South Bergen. Then there’s Donovan’s longtime war with Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin. They love each other for the purposes of this campaign season but have a torturously oppositional backroom record. As for everyone else, people are fed up with elected officials, whether it’s Obama or the right wing, and so sources in both parties describe a difficult off-year gently tinged with irritability. Democrats like their organizational ability and see a way to cut into Donovan in South Bergen with Pascrell, run up the numbers in Tedesco’s home town environs of Paramus, and keep Bridgegate alive in Fort Lee. The GOP sees a well-funded Donovan as too much of a coherent brand in her own right to get tarred, and cackle at the notion of Pascrell and others salvaging the little-known and to date underfunded Tedesco on Donovan’s turf.

The Outcome

It’s still Donovan’s to lose.

Fight of the Week: Donovan v. Pascrell