With limited opportunities to pick up State Assembly seats in November, Republicans are expected to pour extensive resources into the state's southernmost tip – a traditionally Republican area currently represented by three Democrats.
"You look at the map, and District 1 is definitely their number one priority," said Monmouth University pollster and political science professor Patrick Murray. "It's going to be tough. Cape May is a huge Republican County. It's going to be a year where we're not going to have a high turnout. You're going to get the voters who vote every year, and they're going to be Republicans down there."
The first district is made up of Cape May County, a large part of Cumberland County and a small part of southern Atlantic County.
Republicans see the district's total Democratic control as a fluke brought about by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate whose coattails in 2007 are credited with helping his two assembly running mates, Nelson Albano (D-Vineland) and Matt Milam (D-Vineland) across the finish line.
This time, Van Drew isn't on the ballot. Instead, Albano, who's in his second term, and Milam, a freshman – both from Cumberland County — are below an unpopular Democratic governor and are likely to face at least one Republican candidate who comes from Cape May County – a Republican stronghold that dominates the district.
Dennis Township Attorney Michael Donohue, who came up about 2,000 votes short of Milam in 2007, plans to run again, and will likely have the support of Republican leaders.
Upper Township Committeeman Frank Conrad, who owns three small businesses in the district, has submitted a letter of intent to run, but he's been pretty quiet about it
"I'm pretty much going to wait and see how things shake out," said Conrad, 38, who also put his name in the mix two years ago before dropping out in favor of candidates Michael Donohue and Norris Clark. Not one to go against the party's selection system.
In Cumberland County, businessman Sam Fiocchi is said to be mulling a run, while Clark has set up an exploratory committee, according to the Press of Atlantic City. Neither could immediately be reached for comment.
James R. Hurley, who represented the district in the Assembly from 1968 to 1978 and in the Senate from 1978 to 1990, said that Republicans will have an easier time winning without Van Drew at the top of the ticket.
"Jeff Van Drew is an anomaly – a Democrat from Cape May, and therefore he gets them a lot of votes there," said Hurley. "In my opinion, you change the dynamics entirely when you take him out."
Neither Milam nor Albano returned calls seeking comment. But other Democrats who have run in the district said that the two have worked hard to establish identities apart from Van Drew
Edward Salmon, who represented the first district in the State Assembly from 1987 to 1991, said that the assemblymen should be able to win without help from Van Drew's coattails.
"I think [the coattails] are a factor. I don't know if I'd call it a major factor," he said. "I think the fact that thetwo terms with Nelson and one term with Matt have given them an opportunity to create their own identity," he said.
Attorney Bill Hughes, Jr., who narrowly lost a 2001 state senate run in the district that went into a recount, said that Cape May County's demographics are trending less Republican, and noted that the presidential election brought about a big jump in Democratic registrations.
Cape May County saw about 5,000 new Democrats register last year, along with about 3,000 new Republicans (There are still nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats: 27,638 to 14,405) .
"It used to be heavily Republican, and it's now gradually becoming more and more Democratic," said Hughes. "On top of that… you still have a positive feeling towards the Democrats based upon last year's elections."
One question Republicans might grapple with is whether to run two candidates from Cape May, playing to natural Republican strengths there, or include someone from the more Democrat friendly Cumberland County on the ticket to try to even out the margins there.
"You can try to mitigate it or you can say you're going to write off Cumberland and rack up as much of a margin as you can in Cape May," said Patrick Murray. "I can't say which of those options right now is the better one."
Murray said that of the two incumbents, freshman Milam is slightly more vulnerable.