3. Whelan v. Polistina: 2011 LD 2 General election
The Set Up
They would talk about this one later, operatives looking at the waves incoming, remembering the most expensive race of the season: a nearly $5 million extravaganza that pitted the veteran Whelan against challenger Polistina. For four years, the GOP groomed Polistina for precisely this contest, and when he launched from the salt marshes of Egg Harbor Township, he appeared ready at last for his close-up. Back in 2007, when Whelan defeated Sonny McCullough, backers of Polistina’s successful Assembly campaign reveled in the notion that Vince would someday succeed where Sonny failed. The GOP was convinced it had found the right man to buck the lanky swim coach who crankily held the distinction of being the only mayor in recent years not dragged away in handcuffs or consigned to an institution.
An engineer with public contracts, Polistina tried to package himself as a concerned jobs creator, a characterization Whelan relentlessly tried to expose as disingenuous for a candidate claiming to be the small-government, fiscal conservative in the race. The Republican poked back hard at Whelan, citing the former Atlantic City mayor’s public pension securing job as a development consultant in neighboring Ventnor as the essence of government hackery. Trying to fend off a feisty challenger, Whelan found himself beset by another headache in the form of sitting Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford. In an effort to muddy the contest at the heart of Wehlan’s hometown and wound his longtime political nemesis, Langford teased the media with the promise of a bid himself as an independent – and threw bombs all summer long at Whelan.
Whelan defeated Polistina 53-47%. A grimy, contentious contest, Polistina down the stretch refused to shake Whelan’s hand at their last debate. When Whelan mounted the stage at his so-called victory party in downtown Atlantic City, the crowd encountered a tall figure grimly, glumly giving off every indication that Polistina had flattened him. Only the raw bar TV images of Polistina on the other side of the district conceding gave many in the room a sense of relief at the sight of the tortured winner. Moments later, it was apparent why Whelan appeared the way he did. Every other Democrat in the county had lost: Whelan’s running mates, the county candidates, from top to bottom, leaving the 2nd District senator to celebrate in solitude. The race fascinates in part because of the hopes the Republican Party placed in Polistina, an emblem of a new generation of Atlantic County politician, schooled by Sonny McCullough, but in possession of a sunny brand of competence and family friendly charisma all his own. Never checking his long, angular strides, Whelan in walloping Polistina held to his own resistance to the typical pol’s backslapping eagerness for human contact, reinforcing himself as that rare breed of politician who never appears desperate for a vote but whose old jock’s competitive desire still smolders.