Democrats have high hopes in South Jersey’s 8th Legislative District

The 8th Legislative District in South Jersey, a traditional Republican stronghold, is being closely watched as a potential toss-up, a district where Democrats hope to add to their already sizeable majority in the lower house of the state Legislature.

It’s been 45 years since a Democrat has been elected to a legislative seat in the district, which encompasses suburban and rural towns in Burlington, Camden and Atlantic Counties. But it’s turned bluer. A couple of years ago, Democrats lost by only a few hundred votes. And the district’s one-time GOP incumbent senator, Dawn Addiego, flipped to the Democratic side of the aisle earlier this year, saying that “the party which once echoed the vision of Ronald Reagan no longer exists.”

Beyond that, the Republican slate — incumbent Ryan Peters and Burlington Sheriff Jean Stanfield — is being squeezed on the right by an independent backed of President Donald Trump.

Pundits have said the race is too close to call, and that the size of the turnout will be critical to the outcome.

Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale, the Democrats seeking the district’s two seats in the Assembly, knocked on doors in Evesham Township on Election Day. Their party’s put a lot of effort — and money — into the race.

“I think this is the first time that Democrats have really mounted a campaign that’s this organized and with this much enthusiasm,” said LaPlaca. “We’ve been blessed with resources. We’re very happy to get the support we’ve gotten, particularly as challengers who’ve never held elected office before. It takes a lot to get people to buy into a couple candidates like us.”

Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the 8th Legislative District by 7,000 voters. But the district’s also got more than 63,000 unaffiliated voters.

“You have Democratic voters that are still energized,” Natale said. “People still are fighting for change and they understand that this wasn’t something that was going to be accomplished in one election, or even two elections. That they need to keep fighting.”

A mark of the high hopes among Democrats for the race was the presence of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin who joined Natale and LaPlaca for a while Tuesday afternoon. He’s anticipating a supermajority in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

“We’re going to have success up and down the state. When we do — it’ll be the first time in 70 years that they party of the governor has added seats during a midterm,” Coughlin said.

Meanwhile, the Republicans on Tuesday rallied staffers at their Mount Holly headquarters. Both are familiar to GOP voters in the district. Peters has one Assembly term under his belt. Stanfield stepped up after Joe Howarth, the other incumbent, lost the backing of the party for the primary race. Stanfield is carefully watching mail-in ballots.

“Right now we are on par with the Democrats,” Stanfield said. “It’s neck and neck as to how many of the ballots are being returned for each of our parties, so I think it’s going to be interesting.”

Trump is an issue in the district. There’s an independent on the ballot, Tom Giangiulio, the mayor of Waterford, who’s running as a “MAGA Conservative” and could siphon away votes from the GOP slate. In a race that’s expected to go down to the wire, a few hundred votes can make a crucial difference.

Giangiulio could not be reached Monday, but Peters discounted him as a candidate.

“He didn’t show up to any debates,” he said. “He didn’t do anything. He just showed up two days before the election, put some signs out, did a robocall and put a bunch of lies in a mailer. So I don’t think that’s a true candidate.”

The race has focused on familiar issues — cutting taxes, increasing school aid and gun control.