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Legislative District 2

The 2nd is shaping up to be a swing district, and the scramble for votes has already taken on a nasty edge.

Both major parties are eying the 2nd Legislative District as one place where they may be able to gain seats in November.

That’s largely because the district, which encompasses Atlantic City and its environs, already has a split political personality. Democrat Jim Whelan holds the Senate seat, while Republicans Vince Polistina and John Amodeo sit in the Assembly.

The Republicans lost some momentum in their quest to take the top of the ticket on September 23, though, when a Superior Court judge allowed Lorenzo Langford to take his name off the ballot.

Langford, the mayor of Atlantic City, had filed to run for the Senate as an independent and was expected to take votes away from Whelan, the city’s former mayor. Langford decided to drop out past the official deadline and needed judicial approval to get his name off the ballot. His attorney said Langford decided not to run for personal reasons and so he could devote all his time to his mayoral duties.

Polistina has been a formidable vote getter in previous elections; however, he did not poll as well as Whelan in 2007, the last time both were on the same ballot. That year, Polistina got 24,603 votes for the assembly, while Whelan polled 27,913 for the senate. How they will fare going head to head remains to be seen.

Even this early on in the race, the tone has been nasty and it could get worse. During their first debate, on September 15 in Atlantic City, Polistina knocked Whelan’s track record during the quarter-century he held elective office in the city, while Whelan criticized some of the contracts Polistina’s engineering firm has gotten without public bidding.

Polistina also seems to be trying to court younger voters, stating at that first debate that he was only 11 years old when Whelan’s political career began in Atlantic City in 1982 as a councilman. Polistina is 40; Whelan, a teacher, is 62.

As with other races, the new legislative district map has had some impact in the 2nd, but not a significant one. Redistricting saw the elimination of Galloway Township, and the addition of Somers Point, Buena and Buena Vista. In 2007, when both the Senate and Assembly were last together on the ballot, Somers Point and Buena Vista both voted Democratic across the ticket, while Buena Borough voted Republican for the Senate but Democratic for the Assembly. That year, Whelan outpolled Polistina in Galloway, although they were seeking different offices. The loss of Galloway also would seem to hurt Polistina, given that he grew up there.

Voter registration shows the political character of the district. Democrats had 40,433, Republicans numbered 31,187 and unaffiliated voters totaled 55,252. Members of that last category will decide the election and in the past they have cast split ballots.

Whelan needs a strong showing from Atlantic City if he is to win, and as the city’s former mayor he is likely to get it. Besides, Whelan has been around Atlantic County politics for almost three decades and is well known to voters.

The union vote is expected not to be a factor, since both Whelan and Polistina voted in favor of imposing pension and health benefits cuts earlier this year. Nevertheless, Whelan could be more affected by labor’s sitting on the sidelines because Democrats have traditionally relied on unions to supply campaign manpower.

While voters have opted to split their votes in the past, that may not happen this time around. With so much attention focused on the top of the ticket, the winner of the Senate race could pull his running mates to victory with him.

Whelan is running with Damon Tyner, an attorney from Egg Harbor, and Alisa Cooper, an Atlantic County freeholder whose mother represented the district in the Assembly for years.

Polistina is paired with Amodeo, a crane operator who was elected to the Assembly in 2007 with Polistina, and Chris Brown, a lawyer, former municipal court judge and municipal prosecutor, and a veteran from Ventnor.

Josh McMahon has covered New Jersey issues for more than three decades. He reported on the New Jersey Supreme Court, was a bureau chief of the Star-Ledger's Trenton bureau, the political editor of the state's largest newspaper, and served on the paper's editorial board, overseeing the op-ed pages of the paper.

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