Best Senate race in the state: McCullough vs. Whelan

The roots run deep in Atlantic County, and the so-called softies on the golf courses in the suburban towns still bear traces of the barrier city, where gamblers learn to live another day even when they don't have money.

Republican Sen. James "Sonny" McCullough had his "Students for Sonny" in T-shirts in the lobby of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Thursday night, scene of his Chamber of Commerce debate in the 2nd district with Democratic Assemblyman Jim Whelen.

McCullough wasn't supposed to be in the race at this point. Democrats figured family strife within his own party would deep-six him by now. After all, the man McCullough replaced, state Sen. Bill Gormley, was all but actively campaigning against him, and Assemblyman Frank Blee was likewise still steamed at McCullough for wresting party control away from Camp Gormley.

The Dems also figured they could score big with Whelan, a frank and straight-talking ex-Atlantic City mayor and a hands-on executive who helped stimulate growth and left office with his wrests unimpeded and his dignity intact – standout facts when one considers the record of Atlantic City mayors.

Asked to pick a good mayor before Whelan, veteran GOP operative Roger Stone, who has longtime ties to Atlantic City, went all the way back to "Two Gun" Tommy Taggart, who used to personally bust up dives with his weapons of choice in the 1940s. Then Stone corrected himself when he recalled that even "Two Guns" dropped into the history books amid a cloud of corruption.

Yet even as Whelan chiseled out his own mayoral legacy, one of his successors, ally and friend Bob Levy, staggered out of the mayor's office earlier this month trailed by a beehive's worth of ethics issues.

In the midst of his campaign for Senate, Whelan was in the middle of an Atlantic City media warzone. A fall U.S. Attorney's bust that flattened the Pleasantville School Board didn't help the Democrats' image down here either, and in what has traditionally been a Republican district, McCullough has hung tough.

Now, as the campaign of Democratic state Sen. Ellen Karcher appears stalled to the north and McCullough's still keeping pace in the polls with Whelan, Codey and the Democrats are reportedly rushing to Whelan's aid, and training their sights on once and for all knocking off McCullough.

McCullough has $270,735,79 in the bank, according to last week's ELEC filing; while the Whelan team has $85,329.49, soon to be buttressed by a reported $800,000 from Codey, to be poured straight into the open mouth of the Whelan campaign.

McCullough says no problem.

He's been running a grassroots race here and he's going to keep focused. Whelan says McCullough's bankrolled by developers and living in a fantasy world of dual-office holding and a taxpayer-funded golf course bearing McCullough's name in Egg Harbor Township, where he's also mayor.

Affable and easy-going in the face of his opposition, McCullough's also not backing down from the fight. Not a surprise to those down here who know the grandson of Anthony Ruffo, who in the 1930s was mayor of Atlantic City.

Best Senate race in the state: McCullough vs. Whelan