Republican incumbent Frank Formica is worried about losing his freeholder seat despite having a comfortable lead Wednesday morning, as a barrage of mail-in ballots wait to be counted, he said.
Formica, owner of Formica Bros. Bakery in Atlantic City, could lose the post he has held since 2012 to Egg Harbor Township businesswoman Celeste Fernandez.
An unofficial tally Wednesday morning had Formica with 52 percent of the vote and Fernandez with 47 percent. He led by 3,600 votes.
Both campaigns said mail-in ballots that were being counted Wednesday could push Fernendez over the edge to victory.
Atlantic County saw a spike in mail-in ballots issued in this election. Of more than 16,200 residents who registered for mail-ins, about 10,000 voted, said Board of Elections Clerk Susan Sandman. That's almost double the 5,722 votes cast by mail in the 2014 midterm election.
Formica said he heard rumors former Atlantic City Democratic Councilman Craig Callaway orchestrated about 3,000 or 4,000 votes against him through mail-in ballots, calling it a “weapon of political mass destruction.”
“I can look anyone in the eye and say I’m proud to be an Atlantic County Republican,” Formica told a crowd watching results roll in at the Linwood Country Club. “(But) there’s a phenomenon going on and it may not turn out so well (for Republicans).”
Callaway has previously organized messenger and mail-in ballot efforts in the city. Former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, during his re-election campaign in November 2017, accused Callaway of paying messengers to obtain ballots that were then filled out for Democrats.
Callaway, reached by phone Tuesday night, did not confirm or deny that he told Formica about thousands of mail-in votes, but said he was confident Democrats would succeed.
“Wait till the numbers come out,” Callaway said. “I think that (Formica) is going to lose. This is a great day for the Democratic Party.”
At the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, Fernandez was confident and upbeat about the results when she took the stage before U.S. Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew gave his victory speech.
Democratic candidates Maureen Leidy and Barbara Butterhof-Rheault were unable to unseat Republicans Maureen Kern and James Bertino respectively. Butterhof-Rheault, running for the District 5 seat, had 41 percent of the vote against Republican James Bertino. Leidy captured 42 percent of the vote.
The Democrats tried to build off successes last year when they picked up two seats on the board, ousting Republicans Tony DiPietro and John Carman.
In a win that garnered national attention, Democratic Freeholder Ashley Bennett unseated Carman for the third district’s seat after he shared a meme on social media asking whether the Women's March would be "over in time for them to cook dinner." Democrat Caren Fitzpatrick was also elected in 2017 over DiPietro.