New Jersey’s 2nd legislative district, covering most of Atlantic County and anchored by Atlantic City and Egg Harbor Township, is a district accustomed to divided representation.
Since 2017, the district has elected a Republican to the State Senate – first former State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Ventnor), and now State Sen.-elect Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor) following Brown’s appointment to Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration – and two Democrats, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) and John Armato (D-Buena Vista), to the Assembly.
Brown was preceded in the State Senate by a Democrat, while Armato succeeded Brown in the Assembly, meaning that the district has elected two Democrats and one Republican four cycles in a row. In fact, neither party has been able to control all three seats in the district since 2005, when the late State Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City) broke through a longstanding Republican trifecta.
With only one elected incumbent running in 2021, this cycle presents a clear opportunity to give one party full control of the district. But both Democrats and Republicans are optimistic that it is their party who can break through and sweep all three seats.
In a sign that both parties are taking the race seriously, all six nominees for the district are familiar and respected local figures, five of whom have won office in Atlantic County before.
“There’s not a stranger in the bunch,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I assume both parties are going to be invested.”
For the State Senate, it’s the Battle of the Vinces: four-term Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo for Democrats, former assemblyman (and now State Sen.-elect) Vince Polistina for the Republicans. Both bring name recognition and local ties to the race that make them formidable candidates.
Democrats consider Mazzeo, who has represented the district since 2014, to be a strong leader for their ticket – especially in contrast with Polistina, who last won the district in 2009 and lost an election for State Senate in 2011.
“Mazzeo has really done a hell of a job representing Atlantic County for many years, first as a councilman in the city of Northfield, then as mayor, then for almost 10 years in the Assembly,” said Michael Suleiman, the chair of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. “He’s really done a heck of a job and he’s uniquely qualified to be our next state senator.”
But Polistina, despite his years out of office, comes with his own advantages, among them the fact that he is functionally the district’s incumbent state senator even if he hasn’t been sworn in yet.
“I think Polistina got a very big boost with becoming the senator,” said Harry Hurley, a conservative talk radio host from Atlantic County. “That’s a big deal. Because now it’s not a case of, he last ran ten years ago and he’s running to be senator – he is the senator.”
On the Assembly side, Republicans are running former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and former Deputy Attorney General Claire Swift, neither of whom have run district- or countywide before but both of whom are known quantities in the district.
Guardian was the mayor of Atlantic City – one of the district’s bluest communities – from 2013 until 2017, when he was defeated by Democrat Frank Gilliam. In 2016, during Guardian’s tenure, the state took control of the city due to the city’s financial troubles, and Murphy recently extended the state takeover for another four years.
Swift, meanwhile, worked as a deputy attorney general from 2000 to 2003, and currently runs a law firm with two of her brothers in Northfield.
Democrats have the incumbent Armato running alongside Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick, who first won her countywide office in 2017. Unlike Guardian and Swift, both Armato and Fitzpatrick have won recent elections – Armato in 2019, Fitzpatrick in 2020.
Both parties appear happy with their candidates, and both sides project confidence that they will be the one to fully sweep the district.
“I think that there’s any year for us to win all three, it is this year,” Suleiman said. “It’s all about building a bench, and Atlantic County Democrats, we’ve done that.”
Hurley, on the other hand, insisted that Mazzeo and Armato are all but lost causes, and speculated that Fitzpatrick is the only one with a chance of breaking through.
“It’s a question of, will the Republicans sweep all three seats, or do they win two out of three and Caren Fitzpatrick wins one of the Assembly seats?” Hurley said. “She is capable of doing that.”
According to Rasmussen, no matter who wins, they will be held to a high standard by Atlantic County residents accustomed to strong representation in the legislature.
“There are some districts where your state representatives are fairly invisible or low-profile. That is not the case here,” Rasmussen said. “People expect more from their legislators in Atlantic County.”
As August slowly fades into fall, a barrage of advertising, spending, and campaigning is on its way. And in Atlantic County, which has been hit in successive waves by the Great Recession, the decline of the casino industry, and the ongoing Covid pandemic, the campaign will likely have an economic focus.
“This is going to be a race that will be driven largely by economic issues,” said Mickey Quinn, a Democratic consultant. “It’s about affordability, and there really is no close second.”
“Atlantic County is about bread-and-butter, it’s about jobs, it’s about taxes, and it’s about services provided,” Hurley concurred.
Suleiman noted that candidates who stray from such issues and focus more on ideological battles may be less successful in areas like the 2nd district.
“Atlantic County is a purple county,” he said. “You can’t just run as a Democrat or Republican for party’s sake, and you can’t be a fire-breathing progressive or you can’t be a far-right Trumper. You’ve got to run and have messaging that resonates with the overwhelming majority of the electorate.”
With few other districts considered competitive this cycle, and with Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli attempting to build strength in South Jersey, the attention paid to the 2nd district is likely to be intense.
“Look at the investment over the past more than a decade,” Hurley said. “If you look at the money that has come in to try to beat Democrats or have Democrats win power in the New Jersey Legislature in District 2, it’s got to be close to $50 million over the past ten years. There is no question Democrats want it just as much as the Republicans do.”
Despite its swingy nature at the legislative level, the 2nd district is a light blue seat in statewide elections, typically registering as a few points more Republican than the state as a whole. All four of the most recent Democratic presidential nominees won the district, as did Murphy in 2017 and Democratic U.S. House nominee Amy Kennedy in 2020.
President Joe Biden’s performance in 2020 provides an illustrative example of what a Democratic win in the district looks like.
The most critical components of a Democratic victory are the cities of Atlantic City and Pleasantville, both of which are majority-minority and overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates; Biden won both by over 50 points.
Beyond its Democratic core, the district also contains a number of far more competitive municipalities, among them Egg Harbor Township, the county’s largest community. While the margins in each vary, the important thing for Democratic candidates is to fight to a draw overall, so as not to overwhelm their margins from Pleasantville and Atlantic City.
Finally, there are several municipalities, including Mullica, Folsom, and Brigantine, that will typically provide Republican candidates with strong margins. Such municipalities only make up around 10% of the district, however, and can be drowned out by other, larger communities.
In Biden’s case, he won Atlantic City and Pleasantville combined by almost 12,000 votes, while losing the rest of the district by around 300 votes. For Democratic candidates this year, the task will be to get as many votes as possible out of the district’s two heavily Democratic cities and keep losses to a minimum in the remainder.
Brown’s 2017 victory, on the other hand, shows how Republicans can still pull out a win in the district.
As would be expected for any Republican candidate, Brown still lost Atlantic City and Pleasantville, but by significantly less than former President Donald Trump did in 2020. Atlantic City went for Brown’s opponent, former State Sen. Colin Bell (D-Margate), by 26 points, a far cry from Biden’s 55-point margin in the city.
The difference in Pleasantville was less dramatic but still beneficial for Brown; he lost the city by 61 points, while Trump lost it by almost 70. Bell’s reduced margins in the two cities meant he had less of a cushion to fall back on.
Equally important for Brown’s coalition was his near-clean sweep in the rest of the district. While large communities like Egg Harbor Township, Hamilton, and Somers Point narrowly went to Biden in 2020, Brown won all three, along with nearly every other community in the district outside of Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
Overall, Bell won the two Democratic cities by a little over 3,000 votes – not nearly enough to overcome Brown’s 7,000-vote margin in the rest of the district.
If Republicans are to win in 2021, they will likely have to pull off a similar balancing act: remaining viable enough in Atlantic City and Pleasantville to reduce their losses there, while dominating nearly every other municipality in the district.
Whichever three candidates prevail this November, all three will face voters once again in 2023 under new district maps.
According to 2020 Census data released last Thursday, the 2nd district is more than 15,000 people short of the ideal legislative district size, meaning that redistricting will likely force it to take in some new territory to the north.
One possibility is that the district might incorporate Galloway, a large and politically competitive township in the current 9th district that Biden won by around 2 points. Another is that it could take Hammonton from the 8th district; given that Trump won Hammonton by more than 20 points, this option would shift the 2nd district somewhat more Republican.
And with the 1st district to its south also underpopulated, the 2nd district may undergo even more dramatic changes in order to balance the legislative map.
But no matter what may happen in two years, the district’s status as one of the state’s most competitive is unchallenged for now.
“Republicans can win, Democrats can win. And then sometimes we can have split governance, which we’ve had for quite a while,” Hurley said. “District 2 is a pure swing district.”