At the southern tip of New Jersey, the 1st District is getting a lot of attention this year. The three Republican challengers are waging a strong battle against the incumbent Democrats and have a serious chance at victory.
For one thing, this district had split representation as recently as 2005. For another, registered Republicans actually outnumber registered Democrats, although the unaffiliated are still the plurality.
Still, a recent nonpartisan poll puts the incumbents significantly ahead of their rivals, particularly for the Senate seat.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a dentist, has represented the district in Trenton for the past decade, first as an assemblyman. He is completing his first term in the Senate. David DeWeese, a lawyer and former municipal prosecutor and judge, is challenging him.
The race for the lower house pits incumbents Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam, finishing their third and second terms, respectively, against Cumberland County Freeholder Samuel Fiocchi and Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters.
The Democrats' platform has five main planks, including protecting jobs in South Jersey, capping state spending, prohibiting lobbyists' gifts to politicians, improving access to affordable healthcare, and bringing more money back to South Jersey.
DeWeese said he is running because he has been disappointed with the way the Democrats have represented the district in Trenton. He and his team want to change that and provide true fiscally conservative leadership in the state capital.
"People are very dissatisfied with their government right now," he said. "[Van Drew] and his running mates are trying to go to the right of us, saying they're fiscal conservatives…. What we're really about is exposing that."
Races in the 1st District -- which spans from historic Cape May City, where the Delaware River meets the Atlantic Ocean, up to Ocean City along the shore and Stow Creek in Cumberland County -- are more competitive than in many legislative districts. In 2007, the last time the state Senate topped the ballot, only 2,000 votes separated Milam from the top GOP challenger.
As recently as 2003, Van Drew was the only elected Democrat in the district -- he was in the Assembly at the time -- and the party did not even back a challenger to Republican Sen. Nicholas Asselta. Two years later, the district was still split, but the Democrats held both Assembly seats. In 2007, Van Drew ousted Asselta and Democratic control of the 1st was complete.
Redistricting made some major changes in the district's composition. It lost three Atlantic County communities and gained 11 smaller ones from Atlantic and Cumberland. The 1st netted a gain of five municipalities that voted Democratic in past state legislative races and three that voted Republican. Still, the district is dominated by Cape May County, since the entire county is included.
The impact of redistricting is unclear because of an odd quirk: Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 6,500: 29 percent of those registered are Republicans, compared with 24 percent Democrats, yet members of the minority party are the incumbents.
At the moment, a nonpartisan poll shows that the Democrats have the edge.
A Richard Stockton College/Zogby Poll of likely voters released late last month found Van Drew leading DeWeese by a wide margin, 56 percent to 23 percent. Albano and Milam led their Republican challengers, as well, but by smaller margins, with the closest contest between Milam and Walters, 39 percent versus 32 percent.
Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton, said Van Drew's very high favorability ratings essentially equaled DeWeese's factor as an unknown.
"All of the Republican challengers improved considerably from the Hughes Center's polling conducted in May 2011," Douglas said, adding the candidates still have time to campaign and raise their profiles in the eyes of voters.
If the election is going to be a surrogate for a Gov. Chris Christie vs. President Barack Obama matchup, it could be a tossup. The poll found the district's voters split about equally over the questions of whether New Jersey is headed in the right direction and whether they support Obama, although Christie was slightly more popular than Obama, 52 percent, compared with 49 percent.
The poll found the voters want to see the candidates address education, healthcare, senior citizens' programs, and economic development. All six candidates have been focusing on job creation as they have campaigned across the sprawling district.
The Senate and Assembly candidates of both parties have agreed to debate on October 26 at the historic Cape May Courthouse.