South Jersey may not have the population or wealth of North Jersey.
But it has something most of the state doesn’t — strong competition between the parties.
That’s why candidates in the 1st and 2nd legislative districts, home to some of the poorest residents in the state, have outraised and outspent much bigger, richer districts elsewhere in this November’s election races, according to data released this past week by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Candidates in the 1st District, which covers all of Cape May County and parts of Cumberland and Atlantic counties, have raised $982,847 so far, second only to those in the wealthy 21st District covering parts of Morris, Somerset and Union counties.
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“Unlike most other districts, this district has been competitive for a number of years,” said John Froonjian, interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. “There is a lot at stake for both parties.”
With former Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew now in Congress, the 1st District is alone in having a state Senate race this year, giving Republicans an opportunity to take that seat.
“Political and business leaders all over New Jersey will be watching what happens in the 1st District,” Froonjian said.
First District candidates have spent $665,917 on election mailers and other outreach, giving them fourth place for spending out of 40 districts.
The district voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and has more registered Republicans than Democrats, although independents outnumber both. Its Democrat state senator and assemblymen lean right compared to most Democrats, and Republicans see the district as ripe for a GOP victory in a state where Democrats dominate.
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The candidates recently had to file a report with ELEC on money raised and spent from June 22 to Oct. 4.
In the 2nd District, which covers most of Atlantic County, candidates have raised $516,172 and spent $286,586, putting it eighth for both money raised and spent so far out of 40 districts.
The two southern districts typically are home to some of the most expensive races in the state, election after election, ELEC Deputy Director Joe Donohue said.
“In the recent past, the 2nd has been the key district, but this year there are three seats open (in the 1st),” Donohue said. “With a Senate seat, it’s natural the 1st is getting more activity. There is more at stake.”
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The 1st District Senate seat is currently held by Democrat Bob Andrzejczak, a former assemblyman appointed by his party to succeed Van Drew. He is locked in a battle with Republican challenger Mike Testa, a Vineland attorney, to fill Van Drew’s unexpired term.
Testa has come out strong against Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy’s policies regarding immigration, spending and increased taxes, calling them “insane.”
But there are some similarities between Testa’s team and his rivals. The incumbent Democrats, for example, have joined their Republican challengers in supporting Republican Cape May County Sheriff Robert Nolan and the all-Republican freeholder board in the county’s attempts to keep cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Testa helped County Counsel Jeff Lindsay prepare a lawsuit against state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that alleges it is unconstitutional for the state to force the county to end its cooperation agreement with ICE.
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Democrat Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam are challenged by Republicans Antwan McClellan, an Ocean City councilman, and Erik Simonsen, Lower Township mayor.
Each party has raised similar amounts in the 1st, with the Republicans slightly outpacing the Democrats. That’s in strong contrast to the state as a whole, where Democrats have raised and spent about three times more than Republicans.
Also in the state as a whole, overall spending is similar to the last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket in 2015. Legislative candidates had spent $6.6 million by the same time in 2015, compared with $7.1 million this year.
And the Big Six political fundraising committees run by the two major political parties have spent $3.5 million, compared with $3.6 million at the same time in 2015.
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“This is the first volley. There’s a lot more to come, I’m sure,” said Donohue of spending in the district. “It’s really early.”
Spending by political action committees will add to the totals. So far General Majority PAC, which supports South Jersey Democrats, has spent $61,624 to oppose the Republicans in the 1st District, and $24,264 opposing Republicans in the 2nd, according to a report it filed with ELEC.
Donohue said a complete picture won’t emerge until the candidates file their 11-day reports and then the final report on money raised and spent after the election.
“You never know the patterns of spending in these races,” Donohue said. “Sometimes money comes early and sometimes later. Normally people focus on campaigns the last couple of weeks. We expect a lot (of spending) to be towards the end.”
Meanwhile, the candidates in the 2nd District are doing their best to make their differences crystal clear.
Democrat Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato said they stand by the Atlantic City payment-in-lieu-of-taxes bill Mazzeo shepherded through the Legislature, which links payments by casinos to the government and schools to gross gaming revenue rather than the value of their real estate.
Republican challengers John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township, an Atlantic County freeholder; and Phil Guenther, of Brigantine, a former longtime mayor there, said they would make amending or eliminating the PILOT bill one of their top priorities if elected.
The bill was intended to stop the casinos from filing tax appeals, which had largely been successful in lowering the property taxes they had to pay. Atlantic City borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars to refund overpayments to casinos over about a decade, and the PILOT bill largely stopped those appeals.
It was either that or declare bankruptcy, Mazzeo said.
But it also has protected the casinos from being affected by a large property tax increase hitting residents and noncasino businesses this year.
“At a minimum we should shorten it immediately,” said Risley of the 10-year PILOT, due to end in 2026.
Risley wants to see the casinos properly assessed and taxed like any other business.
Republicans also oppose countywide tax assessment, saying it would unfairly spread the burden of assessing casinos and other complex properties around the county rather than keeping the cost of assessing in the municipality that benefits from their tax payments.
But Mazzeo said it is a more efficient way of keeping assessments current and would save all towns money long-term.
The 2nd District candidates will debate Oct. 23 at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus.
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