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Legislative District 17

Three powerful Democratic incumbents in a solidly Democratic district may help keep the 17th "true blue."

District 17 pits a trio of powerful Democrats -- the environmental and energy leaders of the Senate and Assembly, as well as the deputy majority leader of the lower house -- against a Republican team led by a conservative blogger.

The 17th, which covers parts of Somerset and Middlesex counties, is heavily Democratic, but the Republican contenders are hopeful they will succeed.

The recent redistricting has done little to improve their chances. The loss of Highland Park to the neighboring 18th was mainly a matter of geography and is not expected to change voting patterns. New Brunswick, the county seat of Middlesex, is probably the best-known city in the district. Franklin Township in Somerset County remains its most populous.

The race for the Senate features longtime incumbent Bob Smith, head of the Environment and Energy Committee. Smith, a lawyer, has been in Trenton since 1986. North Brunswick Republican Jason Rickards, also an attorney, is challenging him. The GOP may be hoping to pick up a little bounce thanks to name recognition here: Rickards opines online at The Rickards Review.

In the Assembly, two Republican newcomers, Carlo A. DiLalla and Robert S. Mettler, are challenging the incumbents Upendra Chivukula and Joseph V. Egan. Chivukula is deputy speaker of the Assembly and heads the Telecommunications and Utilities Committee. Egan is the deputy majority leader. Both have been in office since 2002. DiLalla, a financial consultant, and Mettler, a former councilman and mayor of Franklin Townhip, both ran unopposed in the Republican primaries in June.

In 2007, the last time the three incumbents were on the ballot together, they won by a comfortable margin of about 6,000 votes. The loss of Highland Park may cut that down slightly since it voted Democratic 3-to-1, but it had the second smallest number of registered voters.

"We've been seeing voter discontent this year with the way things stand," said Samuel D. Thompson, an Assemblyman since 1998 who chairs the Middlesex County Republicans and is running for Senate in District 12. "The candidates are all out there raising funds."

While the Democrats may feel confident, they are not going to sit back comfortably. They are campaigning vigorously throughout the district.

"All the Democratic candidates are out knocking on doors," said Peter J. Barnes Jr., a chairman of the Middlesex County Democrats. "The responses that we've gotten back have been very positive, and we feel that we're going to be successful."

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer focusing mainly on politics and culture. He is an editorial assistant at Community News Service, a local newspaper group in Mercer County.

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