It started off with Democrats and Republicans talking about a positive campaign centering on the issues, but the 1st District legislative races now include allegations of mudslinging on both sides.
Since the June primary, the two camps have fought over debates, campaign spending and even lawn signs, but in the past week the fighting hit a new level.
The Republicans accused the Democrats of dirty tactics, including conducting a "negative push poll" and sending trackers to follow them around to campaign events.
The Democrats accused the Republicans of using a political operative to bring up a campaign issue and running negative radio spots.
"I'm waiting to find some dead fish in my mailbox," said Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt, the Republican candidate for state Senate. "This isn't the type of thing you normally see in the 1st Legislative District. It's dirty lowball tactics you hear about happening someplace else."
Adelizzi-Schmidt, who is running against incumbent Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said a Democratic operative or tracker tape-recorded a Republican fundraising event in Vineland last Sunday and several days later showed up at an event in Sea Isle City where Kristine Gabor, her running mate for a state Assembly seat, spoke.
Adelizzi-Schmidt said friends have reported being contacted by a polling organization but said the "push poll" included negative statements about the Republicans and "warm and fuzzy statements" about the Democrats. Besides Van Drew and Adelizzi-Schmidt, the race features incumbent Democrats Robert Andrzejczak and Nelson Albano facing off against Gabor and Sam Fiocchi for the two Assembly seats.
Adelizzi-Schmidt said she often brings her two children on campaign stops and having somebody tracking the events "is creepy."
Van Drew on Friday denied having anything to do with tracking or polling. Van Drew said a tracker was employed against him in 2007 when he often campaigned with his daughter, and he said it is not a tactic he would ever use. Van Drew said the tracker waited at the end of his driveway, followed him even when he went to work at his dentist office, and even stood outside in the rain at times. The tracker videotaped at every campaign stop.
"I would never employ a tracker. It's a technique I don't use. No matter how hard or hot the race was, we've never employed a tracker," Van Drew said.
As for the phone poll, Van Drew said his campaign has not done any polling yet. He said he does not believe the state Democratic Party has done any either, and he wonders if the polling is coming from Republicans.
"When you do polling, which we have not done yet, we will ask them some harsh questions about me to see how they feel about certain negative things that could be said about me," Van Drew said.
The Republicans have recovered several phone numbers from caller identification during the polling. One comes back as not in service, while a second, an 800 number, includes a recording that identifies the organization as a marketing and political research firm.
Van Drew, meanwhile, countered that the Republican candidates are using an operative to bring up Assemblyman Albano's speeding ticket issue. Albano was issued a ticket for speeding, going 71 in a 55 mph zone, by a State Police trooper in Mercer County on Feb. 21, 2012. There has been some controversy over whether Albano tried to use his office to get out of the ticket. Albano complained he was targeted for his stance on a pension and benefits issue, though an internal investigation by the State Police determined his allegations were unfounded.
Edward Beck, a Republican committeeman from Dennis Township, has brought the issue up and called for a legislative ethics probe of the incident he termed "troopergate." The Republicans deny putting Beck up to it, though Cape May County Republican Chairman Mike Donohue has previously said he expects it to become a campaign issue. Van Drew argues Beck is doing the party's bidding.
"He a Republican operative, unpaid, but very tight with Donohue, and he was put up to do that," Van Drew said.
When Beck, a retired law-enforcement officer, called for the probe earlier this month, he predicted he would be accused of being "a Republican shill," but he said he was motivated by an abuse of power over a brother police officer.
The 1st District campaign started out friendly, with both sides exchanging letters talking about keeping it positive. Adelizzi-Schmidt challenged Van Drew to begin debates right away, during the summer. Van Drew declined but has since said he agreed to three debates in the fall, one in each county in the district.
Van Drew made a proposal to have both sides eliminate yards signs and instead give the money to local charities. Adelizzi-Schmidt countered with a proposal to limit campaign spending to $500,000 for both sides. Van Drew said the signs should be addressed first and then there can be a discussion about spending.
"If we can't commit to the sign thing, I can't see how we do anything else," he said.
The sides could not come to any agreement, and Adelizzi-Schmidt said this revealed "a vulnerable incumbent" afraid to cut off the campaign cash from "Senate President Stephen Sweeney and the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine."
The Republicans began hammering Van Drew on tax increases and high unemployment rates in the district, which Van Drew called negative campaigning but the Republicans said were legitimate issues. Van Drew argued he voted against many tax increases and staged rallies against toll increases.
Van Drew said the Republicans have also been running negative radio ads and automated "robo calls."
"We've yet to do anything negative," Van Drew said.
Contact Richard Degener: