Republicans are hoping a political shakeup in Cumberland County could give them the opening they need to overcome the power of incumbency in the 1st Legislative District.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, is seeking a second term in office against Republican challenger David DeWeese.
Meanwhile, Republican challengers Suzanne Walters of Stone Harbor and Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi of Vineland are challenging incumbent Democrats Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam for state Assembly.
DeWeese, a lawyer and municipal court judge from Wildwood, said he hoped to capitalize on perceived disarray among Cumberland County Democrats. Two Democratic Cape May County freeholders are not seeking re-election while a third, longtime Cumberland County Democratic Party Chairman Louis Magazzu, resigned this month amid a sexting scandal.
"Louis Magazzu was the leader of the Democratic Party for many years and the driving force behind getting the current legislative team elected," DeWeese said Wednesday. "It looks like that organization has fallen apart. That enhances my and my running mates' chances."
Van Drew said Magazzu's departure from the political landscape will have no bearing on his re-election.
"I think it has zero effect," he said. "People are intelligent. They vote for individual candidates."
The Dennis Township resident said he is confident that voters will continue to pick individuals over party lines. Van Drew noted that he was able to win and defend his seat on the all-Republican Cape May County freeholder board in a heavily Republican county before he sought his first state office.
"Support for me has always been bipartisan. Cape May County is illustrative of that," Van Drew said.
Attorney Doug Long and Cumberland County Jail Warden Bob Balicki took over from Magazzu as co-chairmen of the Democratic Party in June.
"Lou was a tireless worker," Long said of the former party chairman. "He was very successful at bringing people together and opening doors. As a junior legislator, Jeff benefited from that."
But Long said he is confident Van Drew and his running mates can carry the ticket.
"I don't think Jeff will miss a beat. This won't have any bearing on the Senate race," he said. "When you have a senator like Jeff Van Drew who is a proven leader who cares deeply for the residents in the district and has worked tirelessly to restore the quality of life that the governor continues to strip away from residents in our area, there will not be any reason for change."
Cape May County Republican Party Chairman Mike Donohue said Magazzu was an expert at getting voters to the polls on Election Day.
"I think the loss of Lou Magazzu is a substantial blow to Van Drew, Albano and Milam in Cumberland," Donohue said. "He was the master of the knock-and-drag campaign. He would rent every white van in Cumberland, get that voter, put them in the van and take them to the polls."
Donohue said incumbents have huge advantages over challengers. They receive innumerable invitations to town hall events across their districts and have the ability to send letters to constituents that double as campaign material.
"The strength for challengers is they are the underdog and people like the underdog," Donohue said. "It's the great American story."
While incumbency is often an advantage, it can hurt candidates in bad economic times when frustrated voters look for change, said Eric Davis, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
"Incumbency does not play the same role today as it has in the past," he said. "One of the reasons for that is the economic turmoil that influences the country. Incumbents are blamed for the economic troubles."
The key to success for challengers is getting a big turnout on Election Day since these occasional voters are often motivated by change, he said.
"Unless people's pocketbooks are adversely affected, you don't tend to have a large turnout," he said.
Cumberland County Republican Party Chairman Robert Greco said this year's redistricting, which takes place after every 10-year census, means lots of voters in the newly drawn up districts will be introduced to all of the candidates for the first time. The 1st Legislative District added Corbin City, Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
"Here, the incumbents are not incumbents because of redistricting," Greco said. "This is a campaign about getting New Jersey back to fiscal solvency and correcting all the wrong No. 1's for Cumberland County - highest rate of teen pregnancy, highest poverty, lowest rate of higher education."
And Republicans expect to see a lot of Gov. Chris Christie this fall in their bid to reclaim the district. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno took part in a fund-raiser in Cape May County in August.