Polls are open

While Democratic control of the Legislature does not appear to be at risk, there is a little bit of drama on Election Day ’07, as both parties seek to increase their numbers in today’s mid-term legislative races.

The most serious challenges are to three incumbent State Senators, Republicans Nicholas Asselta and James “Sonny” McCullough in South Jersey, and Democrat Ellen Karcher in a Monmouth/Mercer district.

Democrats, who currently have a 50-30 majority in the Assembly, could gain or lose seats. The races to watch are in Districts 1, 2, 12 and 14 – all split districts. There could also be some surprises in Districts 8, 11 and 39.

Keep an eye on Monmouth County, where control of the Board of Freeholders is at stake. Republicans have a 4-1 majority and are defending two of their seats, as well as Sheriff and County Clerk posts.

Watch Burlington, where Republicans are defending one Freeholder seat and their Sheriff, and Atlantic County, where control of the Freeholder Board is at stake and Dennis Levinson is seeking re-election to a third term as County Executive.

And most Election Days have an upset somewhere: could today be in the race for Hunterdon County Sheriff? Somerset County Freeholder?

There are key municipal races in Hamilton, Toms River, Brick and Rutherford.

In the Senate, Democrats have a 22-18 majority – which means the GOP would need to pick up two seats to share control and three to win. The problem for Republicans is that they are defending four seats and really only playing to win in one district.

Insiders from both parties suggest that Asselta and McCullough are running behind against their Democratic challengers, both Assemblymen: Jeff Van Drew and James Whelan, respectively. But both sides also think that GOP Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck is leading Karcher, a freshman who ousted Co-Senate President John Bennett in 2003.

Democrats have backed off their prediction of upsets in two solidly Republican districts: the 8th, where Republican-turned-Democratic Assemblyman Francis Bodine is seeking an open Senate seat against GOP County Clerk Phil Haines; and the 39th, where attorney Joseph Ariyan has run a well-financed challenge against longtime Republican Senator Gerald Cardinale.

Both sides seem confident that two GOP Assemblymen in potentially competitive districts will move to the upper house, replacing retiring Republican Senators: Sean Kean in District 11, and Bill Baroni in the 14th. Both have secured labor endorsements that have hampered Democrats from playing.

In the Assembly, both parties are competing to pick up seats. The GOP has a shot at winning one or two seats in District 1, where freshman Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Albano is seeking re-election. Both sides view Albano as the favorite, but say that former Stone Harbor Councilman Michael Donohue, a Republican, could take Van Drew’s seat. In the 2nd district, leaders from both parties say that Republican John Amodeo is in good shape to hold the seat of retiring GOP Assemblyman Francis Blee, but that there is a real race between Republican Vincent Polistina and Democrat Joseph Wilkins for Whelan’s open seat.

Along with Karcher vs. Beck in the 12th district Senate race, both Assembly seats are in play. Assemblyman Michael Panter, a Democrat elected with Karcher four years ago, faces a serious challenge from attorney Caroline Casagrande. The conventional wisdom is that Republican Declan O’Scanlon, who came within a handful of votes of ousting Panter in 2005, is likely to keep Beck’s seat in Republican hands – but a Karcher victory could put Democrat Amy Mallet in the Assembly too.

In District 14, Democrat Linda Greenstein is favored to win a fifth term. But a big win by Baroni over Democrat Seema Singh at the top of the ticket, and sudden electoral woes for Hamilton’s Democratic Mayor, Glen Gilmore, at the bottom of the ticket, could be problematic. Both sides say they could win both seats, or split. Thomas Goodwin, a GOP Councilman from Hamilton, is fighting former Hamilton Councilman Wayne DeAngelo for Baroni’s open Assembly seat. Neither side is counting out Goodwin’s running mate, Adam Bushman.

In the 39th district, longtime GOP incumbents John Rooney and Charlotte Vandervalk have faced a tough challenge from Democrats Esther Fletcher and Carl Manna. Both sides seem to think Vandervalk will survive, and while Rooney remains the slight favorite, even Republican leaders acknowledge that he could lose to Fletcher. If Ariyan scores an upset, both Assembly seats could go Democratic.

The two open Assembly seats in District 11 are likely to remain Republican, although a last-minute TV blitz by Democrats make the race worth watching. Look for incumbents to win easily in District 7: Republican State Senator Diane Allen and Democratic Assemblymen Herbert Conaway and Jack Conners.

In the 29th district, the Democratic nominee, Teresa Ruiz, faces two independents: Assemblyman William Payne and Newark City Councilman Luis Quintana.