State Sen.-select Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, and his Assembly running mates were in the lead against Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and his team, and the Democrats conceded late Tuesday night.
Polistina celebrated at the GOP party at Linwood Country Club, and gave a speech about 10:30 p.m. celebrating his win and thanking his supporters and family.
“At the end of the day, all politics are local and local communities and local candidates are what helped to pull this off, so thank you all of you,” he said.
At the Democratic party at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, the mood was somber, as candidates and party leaders huddled in what they called the “war room” to compile numbers.
At about 11 p.m. the state and county candidates came out and, one by one, conceded their loss — with the exception of 3rd district county commissioner candidate Thelma Witherspoon, who said her race remained too close to call.
“Obviously this isn't a night we hoped to have. We had a lot of national headwinds going against us, and state headwinds,” said Democratic county Chair Mike Suleiman to the crowd of about 100. “We should have no regrets, we ran a great race.”
"We had great things we were going to do for Atlantic City and Atlantic County — a lot of things on the horizon," Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo said as he conceded the race for State Senate. "I don't know if it will get done now ... It saddens me because Atlantic County deserves better.:
Mazzeo said it was his 9th race since entering politics 18 years ago, and his first loss.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Polistina told his crowd that Mazzeo had called to congratulate him.
With 14,256 mail-in ballots counted about 9:15 p.m. and some still to go, Mazzeo garnered 7,554 votes to 3,456 for Polistina, according to Atlantic County Board of Elections officials.
But early machine voting numbers skewed less heavily for Democrats, and Nov. 2 machine totals were favoring Republicans, with 85 of 151 precincts reporting.
It was the same in the Assembly races.
Democrats Caren Fitzpatrick and Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, led with 7,198 and 7,109 votes by mail, respectively.
Republicans Don Guardian and Claire Swift had 3,749 and 3,608 votes by mail, respectively.
But machine voting on Election Day favored Republicans.
Roughly 75 people gathered in Linwood to show support for the Republican candidates.
“We’re feeling good,” Swift said as the team awaited results. “We have a great group here tonight, and we’re really looking forward to getting the results out and hopefully we’re gonna have a victory tonight. Right, Don?”
Guardian said waiting for results made him “nervous as always.”
“You know, it depends on voter turnout,” Guardian said. “Usually, the Democrats worry about the rain and the bad weather because in the old days that’s the people that worked and were coming after work and stuff. I can tell you from my last election as mayor, the worst thing is bad weather because those voting people are my base. And they didn’t come out — little cold, little rainy things like that. So we’ll see.”
Spending in the perennial battleground district was on its way to breaking previous spending records, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission records for candidate spending through Oct. 19 and independent group spending through Oct. 27.
The Senate seat opened up after incumbent state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, declined to run for reelection and instead opted for a job with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
There are still some vote-by-mail ballots to count, along with an unknown number of provisional ballots, which are mostly paper ballots filled out at the polls when a voter arrives who had been sent a vote-by-mail ballot. The provisionals will only be counted once it is determined the voters did not also return mail-in ballots.
Last week, Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy released a poll showing Mazzeo leading Polistina 48% to 41%.
The same poll also predicted a virtual tie in the Assembly race, as it found only two percentage points separated the field, which was less than the poll’s margin of error.
Election spending in the 2nd Legislative District had exceeded $6.64 million as of late October, behind only the 8th District at $6.7 million as the states’ costliest, ELEC figures show. There are 40 districts in the state.
The 2nd covers much of Atlantic County, while the 8th covers parts of Camden and Cumberland counties and Hammonton in Atlantic County.
They are two of the most competitive districts in the state, where either party has a chance of winning.
The all-time record for the district was $7.1 million, which this year could surpass once all reports are in.
One record has already been set.
“Never before have two legislative races topped $6 million in one election,” said ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle in a recent news release.
Garden State Forward, a federal 527 political organization run by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest union, has spent $3.6 million so far in the general election. Most of its funds ($3.5 million) have been funneled into the 2nd legislative district in support of the Democrats.
In the 1st District, candidates were ready for a long night Tuesday, but Republicans seemed optimistic.
“I’m confident, but there’s nothing official,” said incumbent Assemblyman Erik Simonsen late Tuesday. “Looking at the local races, it obviously looks good for us.”
Mike Donohue, chairman of the Cape May County Republicans, said GOP candidates had a strong showing throughout the county. Typically, Democrats do better in Cumberland County in the legislative district compared to the more solidly red Cape May County.
But Democratic Senate candidate Yolanda Garcia Balicki was not willing to throw in the towel. With early voting results in Cape May County counted, she looked in striking distance of Republican incumbent Michael Testa, 50.64% to 49.36%.
“In Cape May County, I’m not that far down,” she said. “I’m nervously excited.”
But those numbers did not yet include votes cast Tuesday. Once those posted about 40 minutes later, she was well behind in the county. Unofficial results showed Testa with 23,915 to 11,426 for Garcia Balicki.
Results were similar in Cape May County for the Assembly race, with Simonsen and Antwan McClellan each taking more than 23,000 compared with a little over 11,000 each for Democratic candidates John Capizola and Julia Hankerson.
Pre-election polls put the Democrats as a longshot in the southern New Jersey district, and campaign finance reports showed the GOP as far better funded in the race.
“Two years ago, Mike Testa was also a longshot,” Garcia Balicki said. “I think it’s going to be close or we’re going to come out ahead. I’m really feeling hopeful.”
Unofficial early returns in Cumberland County, with 14 of 92 districts reporting, showed Testa leading Garcia Balicki, 59.96% to 40.04%.
Garcia Balicki expected Gov. Phil Murphy to do well against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
“I hope that carries down the ballot. I know how hard we worked,” she said.
Staff Writer Bill Barlow, Doris Zheku and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post