As the state Assembly race begins to stir to life this month, Democratic candidates in the state’s two most competitive districts will have two high-profile names on their side when trying to lure voters to the polls in a sleepy election year. The question remains whether the two popular senators can provide the kind of name recognition that could turn the tide in two districts with slim partisan margins among the electorate.
Assemblyman Bob Anderzejczak will be running under the auspices of the first district’s popular Senator Jeff Van Drew, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo has seen his name yoked to Senator Jim Whelan by way of their stalled and highly publicized bill to establish payment in lieu of taxes for Atlantic City Casinos. The bill would seek to shore up the district’s faltering tax base by offering casinos a flat payment, thereby avoiding further losses from appeals of gaming interests’ tax bills.
Both Whelan and Van Drew have been instrumental in South Jersey’s attempts to reverse the downward economic trends in South Jersey, with Van Drew spearheading legislative task forces and Whelan confronting sometimes hostile state-controlled initiatives from Governor Chris Christie’s administration.
Whelan and Van Drew are two of South Jersey’s most notable exceptions when it comes to party politics in their respective districts. Whelan enjoys the lingering support of city and county officials across the aisle because of his record during Atlantic City’s heyday, and Van Drew is valuable to the South Jersey Democrats for his center-right splinter support in conservative Cape May.
“He’s probably more respected by Republicans than by Democrats,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson of Van Drew. “The Democrats are wary of him because he’s quite independent. But they need him.”
Montclair State University Political Scientist Brigid Harrison agreed that Van Drew will bring significant bipartisan appeal, saying that ““even among Republicans, I think you’ll find that he is very well-regarded.”
“It’s hinging on banner-name recognition of the state senator who is leading that team,” she said of the Anderzejczak-Land campaign.
The Democrats’ campaign in the first district has leaned heavily on the Van Drew affiliation, billing itself as the “Van Drew Team.” Van Drew, who originally tapped Anderzejczak in 2013, was a deciding voice in choosing Land as the assemblyman’s running mate.
On Whelan’s chances of driving Democratic turnout in the second district, Harrison said that Whelan’s name will carry weight with disadvantaged communities on the periphery of Atlantic City’s troubled tourism district.
“He has the goodwill in those communities to drive voter participation,” said Harrison, adding that county residents will likely vote based on who they see as the most viable economic leader for the district.
“Even for people who are insulated form those job losses, they are seeing a decline in property values,” said Harrison, referring to the shuttering of several casinos in the last several years.
Pointing to Christie’s “antagonostic relationship” with Whelan and other local elected officials since establishing the emergency management team, Harrison said that “the sentiment that many people in South Jersey have that they don’t have a say in how Atlantic City’s future is being visualized” could be a sign of increased support for Mazzeo in reaction to the Republican administration’s domineering tactics.
“I think that many people who are pointing fingers are pointing fingers at the governor,” she added.
Levinson had his doubts that either side will have a clear advantage in portraying themselves and their respective party leadership in the Senate as the more sound choice from an economic standpoint. Levinson and other sources agreed that the PILOT bill, even if it fails, will not be a priority for voters.
“The PILOT is so confusing, I don’t have the sense that the average voter understands the impact it’s going to have for the next 15 years,” said Levinson. “He’s a popular vote-getter and the county people like him, but it doesn’t seem to translate to the ticket,” said Levinson of Whelan.
Whelan and Van Drew could both stand to gain a great deal from Democratic assembly wins in November, with Whelan in a position to consolidate his Democratic support and secure his legacy. A win for Anderzejzcak could set the stage for the assemblyman to take up Van Drew’s mantle in the Senate and free the senator up for the congressional run that national Democrats have been agitating for.
Although the senators do demonstrably have skin in the game this cycle, Atlantic County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Schroeder said that a loss in either district would be more significant for the party and its South Jersey delegation. Insiders in Atlantic City have claimed an early lead for Mazzeo’s opponent Assemblyman Chris Brown.
“It would be huge because the South Jersey bloc has carried a lot of influence in Trenton, both in politics and policy,” said Schroeder. “It will weaken the power that South Jersey Democrats have been able to accumulate over the last several election cycles.”