The Atlantic City region is one of the state’s few truly competitive fields of play, but the second legislative district could see a shift in the balance of power when relative newcomer Colin Bell goes up against Assemblyman Chris Brown in this year’s State Senate race.
Atlantic County Democrats tapped Bell—who served as an Atlantic County freeholder for three years and as Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo’s running mate during his reelection campaign in 2015—to take Mazzeo’s place on the ballot last month after an rumored phone poll found the assemblyman floundering against Brown in a Senate matchup. Brown was the top vote-getter in 2015, with Bell trailing behind Mazzeo in third place.
If Brown takes the Senate seat left open by Democrat Jim Wheelman’s imminent retirement, it would both cut into Democrats’ majority in the upper house and remove much of the friction from a district that has been a major locus of outsize campaign spending.
Here are the five major variables to watch as the race accelerates between now and November.
1) PAC spending
The 2015 race between Brown and Mazzeo for reelection was one of the most expensive in the state’s history, with generous contributions from the NJEA to both Mazzeo and Bell’s ticket and to the left-leaning General Majority super PAC. In a gubernatorial record that N.J.’s Election Law Enforcement Commission has predicted will shatter records set during the 2013 cycle, Brown will once again have to maintain a fundraising apparatus that can measure up to the other side’s deep pockets.
2) Support from South Jersey Democrats
The South Jersey Democratic coalition led in part by Senate President Steve Sweeney has a vested interest in their party maintaining its seats in the Assembly and Senate—not only for votes, but for the security of Sweeney’s place in Democratic leadership. North Jersey Democrats could move to replace him if they see blood in the water in Atlantic County, though Sweeney ally Troy Singleton’s chances of being tapped for and winning retiring Senator Diane Allen’s seat in the seventh district could offset the chances of a shake-up.
3) Hindsight on North Jersey casinos and the state takeover
Brown was a vocal critic of both the unsuccessful push to expand casino gaming into North Jersey and to agree to a state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances. Bell has shown early signs of bringing up his opposition to the takeover early and often, a position that Mazzeo had to soft-pedal given his co-sponsorship of the takeover compromise bill itself last year. The Atlantic County Republicans’ anti-expansion messaging largely outstripped the Democrats’ in 2015, with Brown consistently faulting the Mazzeo camp for failing to match his volubility on the subject.
4) Population change
A U.S. Census Bureau report released this month showed that Atlantic County has continued to lose residents due to the shuttering of four Atlantic City casinos since 2014. With the worst foreclosure in rate in a state with the worst foreclosure rate in the country and an economy struggling to diversify, the county lost more than 3,700 people in the last two years. Those changes in the electorate could present a wild card for Bell or Brown.
5) Social media discipline
Mazzeo may have driven a final nail into his Senate candidacy’s coffin when he posted a meme on Facebook of men scaling ladders that suggested they were would-be undocumented immigrants “training” to scale President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the Mexican border. Though Bell showed a defter touch in public debates than his running mate in 2015 and Brown maintains strict discipline on his social media channels, carelessness counts in the screencap era.