If there was one bright spot for New Jersey Democrats last night, it was in District 1.
In this southernmost district in the state, incumbents Nelson Albano (D-Vineland) and Matt Milam (D-Vineland) held on against Republicans Michael Donohue and John McCann by a relatively comfortable margin.
The two were thought to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this year, since they represent a traditionally Republican district that is dominated by Cape May County – where Christopher Christie did especially well. Perhaps considered most damning for their chances was the absence of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis), whose coattails helped get Albano elected in 2005 and Milam in 2007, from the ballot.
But Van Drew was anything but absent from the campaign. He played a crucial role in it, folding his two running mates into his independent brand and campaigning as if he were on the ballot himself.
"Do I feel like I was on the ballot in a way? Yes, because I have a commitment to them and the people in this district that we'll stand up and continue to do what is right regardless of party politics," he said, adding that the candidates still had to win on their own merits "regardless of how much help they had."
"These are guys that in the last two years have stood up and represented this district well, and did so in a very independent way in some very difficult circumstances," said Van Drew, who said his running mates had "regular guy" appeal in the district.
Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee Executive Director Mike Muller said Van Drew's involvement in the campaign was unique
"No Senator in the state stepped up and worked harder, more tirelessly for their assembly-mates when they faced the most competitive district in the state," he said.
Like Van Drew, the two assemblymen voted no on the budget and, before their last election two years ago, were early opponents to Gov. Corzine's asset monetization plan. Democratic leaders were willing to forgive their no votes, realizing that it was necessary for them to preserve independence to keep the district Democratic.
Numerically, the Democrats won by keeping their margin of loss in Cape May relatively low while driving up their numbers in their native Cumberland County, which is more friendly territory to Democrats.
Christie won Cape May County by about 6,000 votes. But not all those voters went down the Republican line. Donohue, the top vote getter there, only beat Albano by about 800 votes. McCann, the next highest vote getter in Cape May County, only edged out Albano by 130 votes.
In Cumberland, by contrast, the Democrats won by over 5,000 votes.
Republicans see a number of other factors at play. For one, the Democrats spent about $1.3 million to the Republicans' $700,000. The Democrats had the advantage of incumbency.
According to Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage, the Democrats played up "personality over substantive policy issues." Supermarket shop steward Nelson Albano motivated the labor vote, and the Cumberland Democrats' "knock and drag" operation worked well.
One local union, the 32BJ SEIU, sent out two mailers in the district going after the Republicans.
The Democrats also chose an interesting strategy. They declined to run a long-shot freeholder candidate in Cape May or municipal candidates in Upper Township and North Wildwood, giving registered Republicans less incentive to vote straight down the GOP line.
"They ran right. Anti-tax, anti-government, anti-Corzine, pro-reform. That was the message of Albano and Milam," said Von Savage.
Donohue said that "you can't discount the effect of a lot of money on a very, very harsh and negative, and frankly concocted message."
The Democrats went after him for his three part time jobs as a prosecutor and solicitor in three Cape May municipalities, alleging he collected three pensions.
"You take a million dollars and put it behind a message like that, you're able to persuade a couple thousand people that I needed to persuade the other way," he said.
For Donohue, who also ran against Albano and Milam two years ago and finished a close third, it was a particularly disappointing night. He said he'll take some time and weigh whether he wants to continue in politics. If he does run for something again, he hopes to expand his base outside of his native Cape May County.
"Maybe I'll ride into sunset, maybe not," he said.