Deep in the rural South Jersey 1st District, the fertile land is also a battleground for what many consider to be the most competitive legislative race this election cycle.
“I think this is the first place that you’re going to see a Republican resurgence in the state of New Jersey and a real referendum on Gov. Murphy and his insane policies that are coming out of Trenton,” said Republican Mike Testa, who is challenging sitting Democratic Sen. Bob Andrzejczak for his 1st District seat.
It’s the only Senate race this cycle — a special election for the position vacated by now Congressman Jeff Van Drew. Republicans see his absence as an opportunity to make inroads.
Van Drew represented the 1st District, which covers parts of Atlantic, Cumberland and all of Cape May County, for nearly two decades, and although Van Drew isn’t on the ticket, his name permeates through both campaigns.
“The relationship that we have only helps our team … Before we were only focusing on state issues, now we can work on state and federal issues,” said Andrzejczak.
“I think Legislative District 1 has been drastically underserved for a very long time. I mean it goes back to our now current Congressman Jeff Van Drew, when he was a senator, his first campaign promise was that he was going to make sure Route 55 was extended. We’re still waiting for that project to be even a shovel ready project,” said Testa.
Testa is a born and raised Cumberland County resident, who took over his family’s longtime Vineland law practice as a criminal defense attorney. He’s running with two local elected officials, Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan and Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen.
“As an elected official, I understand when you can mail in a vote or you can fight for a vote. And I had to fight for dollars in my community when Superstorm Sandy came in and we wanted to rebuild those houses that were in a low income district, and we wanted to make sure those families didn’t leave,” said McClellan.
“We have two districts in our township. We have an elementary district and then we have a seven through 12 district, so combined over the next seven years when they implement this school funding redistribution, we’re going to lose over $10 million just in Lower Township alone,” said Erik Simonsen.
Andrzejcazk’s ticket includes incumbent Assembly members Bruce Land and Matt Milam, who held the seat previously from 2008 to 2013.
“One of things that I did before when I was in the Assembly was Invest NJ, and that was about investing in businesses, attracting businesses and also retention, retention is very important with businesses,” said Milam.
NJTV News asked Land about what about his voting record should tell voters to send him back to Trenton.
“I think if you look at my record, you’ll see that I’ve never voted for anything that I think would hurt the constituents down here. I’ve never voted for taxes. I voted against the gas tax,” said Land.
“What does bother me are the lies that are being told,” said Andrzejczak.
When asked further about which lies he was referring to, Andrzejczak answered, “So I mean, the simple lies as far as saying, ‘I’m a Murphy puppet and that I’m a Murphy Democrat.’ Well, we pride ourselves on being very independent down here in the 1st district.”
The Democratic slate does have a platform that might be considered Republican elsewhere in the state, including voting against the gas tax, millionaire’s tax, recreational marijuana, anti-sanctuary state and pro-second amendment rights.
“We’ve tried hard for the people and I think they recognize that,” said Land.
Andrzejcazk is an Iraq War veteran. During his second tour, he says he landed on the wrong side of a grenade and it cost him his leg. He’s made veterans issues a priority during the six years he served as an assemblyman, and he’s brushing off the fire from his opponents.
One controversial situation involved a mailer sent out by the Norcross-funded General Majority PAC, which targeted Republican candidate McClellan, using a photo that some say looks similar to the Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben’s rice ad.
“It was a blatantly racist mail piece against Antwan McClellan,” said Testa. “They darkened his skin, elongated his head it appears that they whitened his teeth and put him in a yellow oval, so much so that Gov. Murphy called it a racist mail piece, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver called it a racist mail piece … ”
“I’m not one to call someone a racist. Only God and that person knows who’s going to be an actual racist, but for my opponents not to come out and directly disavow the fact that this mailer was out and disrespecting me in that way is very disappointing,” said McClellan.
“The flyer had nothing to do with our campaign. That was out of our control, we had no say in the messaging behind it or anything along those lines,” said Andrzejczak.
Though the district’s been dominated by Democrats in recent years, it went for President Trump by nine points and Republican Bob Hugin carried the 1st District by 16 points in his bid against Sen. Bob Menendez, making it a bit of a wild card.
“Right now the Dems have controlled the Legislature since 2004. Van Drew was sitting as senator, now we have Bob Andrzejzack and nothing has changed. So while they may have a seat at the Dem table, their voices have never been heard,” said Testa.
Testa says the region is missing out on vital economic opportunities, like being able to attract Amazon due to the lack of transportation infrastructure in South Jersey. His ticket wants to turn around the district’s dead last rankings when it comes to health, jobs and raising a family.
“The economy is not booming here like it should be Cape May County sends $550 million of tourism tax dollars to Trenton and gets $1 million back in return,” he said.
“I would just like to get everyone back at the table again,” said Milam. “Put everyone at a table and if there are some animosities within our party I want everyone back at the table lets talk about things we have a lot more work.”
The question is, who will be at that table come Nov. 5?