Last year’s combination of the presidential election and one of the nation’s most closely watched congressional campaigns fought locally is a hard act to follow.
The intense support for and opposition against Donald Trump’s reelection was enriched in this region by his long involvement in Atlantic City’s casino gaming industry. And then when Rep. Jeff Van Drew was pushed out of the Democratic Party for declining to vote for Trump’s impeachment, the president welcomed him to the Republican Party and campaigned for him at a rally in Wildwood.
Democrats nationally targeted Van Drew and the excitement of that contest amped up when a strong first-time candidate, Amy Kennedy of Brigantine, trounced her rivals in the primary to compete against Van Drew.
Trump lost in New Jersey, of course, but Van Drew’s reelection as a Republican showed that South Jersey remains politically competitive. The presidential vote in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties was evenly split, with Joe Biden less than 2% ahead of Trump (and behind by more than that if Trump’s Ocean County margin of 98,000 votes is included).
We thought this year might be dull by comparison, even though all the seats in the Legislature are on the ballot along with the governor. Democrats are sure to dominate in much of the rest of the state, and Gov. Phil Murphy has so much public money to spend this year his reelection seems assured. Local seats in the Legislature will be competitive, but at the start of the year there was no reason to expect many would change hands.
Not now. At least two of the three seats representing the 2nd Legislative District (Atlantic County) will have new occupants after the November election. And the political openings have lured strong candidates back into the battle to represent the public in Trenton.
State Sen. Chris Brown, a popular Republican with a decade in the Legislature (including six years in the Assembly), reset the races last month when he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection (which he was expected to win). He said he was ready for a new adventure, and he doesn’t know what that will be.
The open Senate seat drew the interest of three strong Republicans from past campaigns. Former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian declared his intent quickly, but then dropped to seeking an Assembly seat when former Assemblyman and Senate candidate Vince Polistina declared for Brown’s seat. Soon afterward, 2018 congressional candidate Seth Grossman joined the race.
The open seat also enticed Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo to make a bid for the more powerful Senate position. And that left an Assembly opening on the party’s ticket, which it seeks to fill with Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County commissioner.
Given the possibilities, many more candidates are sure to take a shot at winning party nominations or making independent runs in November.
All of this ensures that voters, especially in Atlantic County, will get primary and general election campaigns that are at a minimum engaging and probably pretty fascinating. And although these races and candidates are unlikely to show up on cable news like last year, the seats they seek have more effect locally. And the campaigns are certain to have more local flavor.