For 12 years, Democrats could call New Jersey’s 1st legislative district their own.
Led by then-State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), the Democratic Party held the district’s Senate seat and both Assembly seats for 6 consecutive cycles between 2007 and 2019, with one brief exception in one of the Assembly seats from 2013 to 2015. The three-member ticket would regularly win in blowouts even as the district, which covers all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland Counties, trended sharply to the right in other elections.
But in 2019, the party’s strength in the district crumbled, and all three Democratic incumbents ended up losing to their Republican challengers. Now, those three challengers – Sen. Michael Testa, Jr. (R-Vineland) and Assemblymen Antwan McClellan (R-Ocean City) and Erik Simonsen (R-Lower) – are cruising to re-election in a district that shows few signs of curbing its rightward shift.
“It’s not going to be one of the more competitive races in the state this year,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “With every bit of due respect to the candidates who are running, Democrats didn’t really draw the interest of the region’s strongest potential candidates.”
New Jersey Democrats have largely bypassed the 1st district this cycle in favor of other opportunities elsewhere, and Republicans are signaling confidence in the district. Only a few years ago, such a statement would have been unthinkable, largely because of one man: Jeff Van Drew.
12 years of dominance
Van Drew, then a dentist and Cape May freeholder, was likely unaware of the influence he would soon hold when he narrowly flipped one of the 1st district’s two Assembly seats in 2001. For his first four years in the legislature, Van Drew was the district’s only Democrat, cultivating his own brand in a conservative area.
Four years after winning office, Van Drew was joined in the Assembly by fellow Democrat Nelson Albano (D-Vineland), and another two years after that, Van Drew flipped the district’s Senate seat and helped his party retain both Assembly seats. Thus began a period of 12 years when Democrats, and especially Van Drew, seemed nearly unassailable in the district.
A total of 16 races were held in the 1st district between 2007 and 2019 – and Democrats won 15 of them. The one exception, when Samuel Fiocchi (R-Vineland), a Cumberland freeholder, flipped an Assembly seat in 2013, was quickly rectified by the Democratic slate in 2015.
The party managed this despite their national prospects sinking substantially in the district. After Barack Obama won the district by around 6 points in 2012, Donald Trump flipped the district into his column by 9 points in 2016, falling only slightly to a 7 point win in 2020.
Critical to the Democratic ticket’s success against these political headwinds was the man at its head. Van Drew was seen as so critical to the party’s fortunes that the ticket was known as the “Van Drew Team,” even in off-year elections when the State Senate wasn’t on the ballot.
Van Drew’s election to Congress in 2018 could have been the crowning moment for 1st district Democrats; instead, it was the beginning of the end. From his perch in the 2nd congressional district, Van Drew made a name for himself as a naysayer on his own caucus’ agenda, a trajectory that dramatically culminated in his defection to the Republican Party in December 2019.
Just weeks earlier, his former colleagues in the legislature were facing the toughest political battles of their careers. State Sen. Bob Andrzejczak (D-Middle) and Assemblymen Bruce Land (D-Vineland) and Matt Milam (D-Vineland) were still running as the “Van Drew Team” – but with the man himself absent from the ballot and beginning to make feints towards party switching, the name no longer held the power it once did.
As the 2019 cycle progressed, the three incumbents saw their polling leads disappear and their political prospects dim. Ultimately, all three lost – Andrzejczak (who gave up his Assembly seat to replace Van Drew in the Senate in January) to Testa, and the two assemblymen to McClellan and Simonsen. Democrats’ hold on the 1st district had finally broken, and Republicans were in complete control for the first time since 2001.
The battle-tested freshmen
Now, in just over three months, the three GOP freshmen will face the first re-election of their careers. And according to observers across the political spectrum, it’s not looking like they’ll have to fight especially hard for a win.
Dan Scharfenberger, the executive director of the Senate Republican Majority Committee, said that he is confident the 1st district Republican ticket is in a strong position.
“What the [1st district] team is campaigning on this time is their record, and I think it’s a great record for South Jersey, so I don’t see them having any problem getting re-elected,” he said.
Part of the ticket’s power comes from the political winds at their back in a Republican-trending district, but also important is the individual strength of the three candidates themselves.
Testa in particular is seen as a formidable incumbent. The grandson of a former Vineland mayor, Testa has connections in the district’s largest and most Democratic area. He’s secured seats on the Senate’s two most influential committees: Budget and Appropriations, and Judiciary. He’s also the Cumberland County Republican Chairman.
“They’re calling the ticket the Testa team,” Rasmussen said. “That’s really astonishing, coming from a state senator who’s running for his first race for re-election, that you would do that.”
“Mike Testa is an extraordinarily strong brand name in Cumberland County and South Jersey for all the right reasons, and he’s only built upon that in his first two years in office,” Scharfenberger agreed. “He’s a fantastic leader of the ticket.”
But McClellan and Simonsen, who hail from two of the district’s other main population centers – Ocean City and Lower, respectively – also bring advantages and geographic balance to the ticket.
“If each of the three candidates can bring a big town to the party, you now have the advantage of the [10,000] people from Ocean City, and the 20,000 people who live in Lower, and the 60,000 people who live in Vineland,” Rasmussen said. “Now, all of a sudden, you have a foothold in parts of the district that represent 100,000 people, instead of trying to introduce all three candidates to those three towns.”
McClellan, in fact, was an impressive enough candidate that as a first-term lawmaker he made Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli’s shortlist for lieutenant governor, though the nod ultimately went to former State Sen. Diane Allen.
The uphill challenge
Democrats, meanwhile, have a trio of largely untested candidates running on their ticket. Attorney Yolanda Garcia Balicki is running for the district’s Senate seat, while physical education teacher John Capizola and businessman Chris Wilson are running for the Assembly.
The ticket has the support of local Democratic parties and leaders – Garcia Balicki’s husband is a former Cumberland County Democratic Chairman and she spent 33 years with the State Parole Board – but has not attracted the kind of statewide support or fundraising needed to make the 1st district a top-tier race.
Democrats in the district also likely can’t count on gubernatorial coattails this time. Gov. Phil Murphy won the district by around 200 votes in 2017, but one Democratic strategist said Murphy would be hard-pressed to repeat such a feat in 2021, given the trends in the district.
According to Rasmussen, the relative weakness of the Democratic ticket isn’t just a damper on Democratic chances, it’s also a sign that the party didn’t take the race especially seriously to begin with.
“You know that a party is gearing up if they bring their A-team, and if they don’t bring their A-team, then they’re not gearing up,” he said.
By not focusing on reclaiming the 1st district, Democrats give themselves more room to pursue opportunities elsewhere, such as a top-tier Senate race in the neighboring 2nd district.
“They don’t want to spread themselves too thin, that is certainly a factor as well,” Rasmussen said.
Future cycles, future opportunities
Barring any major changes in the race, the 1st district seems likely to remain entirely Republican this cycle. But a Republican sweep this November would not preclude better Democratic chances in future years.
“Regardless of whether it’s leaning a couple of points Democrat or leaning a couple of points Republican, this is the kind of district that can be very much won on the basis of hard work and on the basis of a strong candidate,” Rasmussen said.
Redistricting adds another wrinkle, and whoever wins in 2021 will run under new district lines in only two years. Yet given the political geography of the district – and its literal geography at the very southern tip of the state – it’s unlikely the district will see dramatic changes.
Scharfenberger projected confidence on behalf of his party, saying that the “Testa ticket” will be redoubtable for years to come.
“Whichever way you redistrict the 1st legislative district, whichever candidate you might run against Mike Testa, I don’t think it’s going to make all that much of a difference,” he said.
Rasmussen, however, argued that with a strong enough Democratic candidate, anything is possible.
“Both statewide Democrats and regional Democrats have supported this district heavily in the past, and I think to get their support again, you would need to see candidates who are willing to earn that support,” he said. “If you saw that, there’s no question in my mind that South Jersey Democrats would want to play again.”