Nearly two days after polls closed, Atlantic County Republicans were confident they would keep control of the freeholder board.

Republican Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica initially feared the seat he has held since 2012 could go to South Jersey businesswoman Celeste Fernandez, despite having a comfortable lead Tuesday night.

Both campaigns believed mail-in ballots could push Fernandez over the edge to victory.

An unofficial tally had Formica, owner of Formicas Bros. Bakery in Atlantic City, leading by 3,600 votes. But thousands of vote-by-mail ballots had yet to be included in the results.

With a majority of those now tallied, Formica remains solidly in the lead.

He received 4,809 mail-in votes to Fernandez’s 6,336 as of 8 p.m. on election night, according to the county Board of Elections. About 3,000 provisional votes and an unknown number of mail-ins will likely be counted next Tuesday.

“If it’s not a huge spike in mail-ins, then we’re reasonably confident Formica is expected to win,” said Keith Davis, Atlantic County Republican Committee chairman.

Alarm bells started ringing for Republicans Tuesday night as results rolled in. Formica said he heard rumors that former Atlantic City Democratic Councilman Craig Callaway had orchestrated about 3,000 or 4,000 mail-in votes against him, calling it a “weapon of political mass destruction.”

Callaway has previously organized messenger and mail-in ballot efforts in the city. Former Republican Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian blamed Callaway in November 2017 for his failed re-election campaign, claiming Callaway paid for messengers to obtain ballots that were then filled out for Democrats.

Callaway, reached by phone Tuesday night, did not confirm or deny he told Formica about thousands of mail-in votes but said he was confident Democrats would succeed.

Democrats are holding onto hope that ballots trickling in Thursday will help Fernandez claim victory.

A new New Jersey law allows mail-in votes to be counted if postmarked by Tuesday and received 48 hours after polls close.

Mike Suleiman, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee, believes the close race shows freeholder seats should not be considered safely Republican.

“For (Formica being) a business owner who has been in the community for decades, her being this close shows there is a yearning for change,” Suleiman said.

Democratic freeholder candidates Maureen Leidy and Barbara Butterhof-Rheault were unable to unseat Republicans Maureen Kern and James Bertino, respectively. The Democrats tried to build off successes last year when they picked up two seats on the board.

Voters should know definitively whether Formica’s seat is safe by next Tuesday when all provisional ballots are tallied, said Evelynn Caterson, commissioner of the county Board of Elections.

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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