If Jeff Van Drew is successful in his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives this fall, it will set up a series of moves for the legislature next year. Republicans may see greater opportunities in the State Senate and Assembly seats, especially with the absence of a logical heir apparent to retiring twelve-term Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
Van Drew would need to resign for the State Senate by January 3, 2019. That would require Democrats to hold a special election convention to fill the 1st district Senate seat until a special election in November 2019 for the remaining 26 months of Van Drew’s term.
The district includes all of Cape May, part of Cumberland (including Vineland), and three towns in Atlantic.
The clear front runner for the Senate is Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, a 31-year-old Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart winner who lost his leg in a grenade explosion. Andrzejczak won a special election convention for the Assembly in 2013 and has won the seat three times.
The other Democratic Assemblyman from the Bruce Land, 67, a retired corrections officer who unseated an Republican incumbent in 2015.
If Democrats go with Andrzejczak, it would require another special election convention to fill the remaining year of his Assembly seat.
Donald Trump won 55% in the 1st district in 2016. Republicans have a slight advantage in voter registration – 44,004 to 40,159, with 62,695 unaffiliated voters.
Republicans view the 1st district as competitive, but have been unable to break Van Drew’s lock, or his ability to help his running mates across the finish line. But without Van Drew on the ballot, the GOP would likely make a big push to pick up a Senate seat in a 2019 special.
The chances of a Republican win would be enhanced if the new Democratic Governor, Phil Murphy, struggles leading into his first mid-term election.
Senate President Steve Sweeney would play an outsized role in a special election, and Democrats will assuredly have a fundraising advantage. It could be an opportunity for a rising Republican star, State Sen.-elect Chris Brown, to expand his own political base by playing the district immediately to his south.
Cape May County cast about 65% of the total votes in the 2015 mid-term election. The problem for the GOP is that several of the top Cape May vote-getters are a little on the older side.
Some potential candidates include: Freeholder Will Morey, 60, a Freeholder since 2011 and the owner of Morey’s Pier in Wildwood; Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, 52, the owner of Gillian’s Wonderland Pier; Freeholder Marie Hayes, 61, a Freeholder since 2013 and a retired Cape May Prosecutor’s office detective; and Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt, 51, who ran against Van Drew in 2013.
Republicans have recruited Leonard Desiderio to run for Senate or Assembly in the past, but he has never shown much interest. The Mayor of Sea Isle City since 1993 and a Freeholder since 2002, Desiderio would be an extraordinarily formidable candidate. So would Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson, a retired Brigadier General of the U.S. Army National Guard and an ex-Cape May Undersheriff — butPierson is past 70. The GOP has a deep bench of local elected officials in Cape May.
The talent on the Cumberland side of the district more difficult to identify. On paper, Mary Gruccio has always looked like an ideal candidate: a former Freeholder and longtime educator, she is now the Vineland Superintendent of Schools. Buy she has also lost two Freeholder races, and won just 34% against Van Drew in the 2017 Senate race. Still, she would be viable as an Assembly candidate on a strong Cape May-based ticket.
There are three other familiar names who could make a comeback: former Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi, an ex-Cumberland Freeholder who beat embattled incumbent Nelson Albano in 2013, but lost to Land in 2015; Jim Sauro, also a former Freeholder, who has lost races for the Assembly in 2015 and 2017; and former Freeholder Carman Daddario, who lost his re-election bid last year. To be clear, Cumberland voters have traditionally not rejected defeated candidates as damaged goods, the way some other areas of the state do.
Assuming Andrzejczak goes to the Senate, Democrats will almost certainly appoint someone from Cape May to replace him in the Assembly. One obvious choice is Richard Harron, who won 48% of the vote as a Democrat running for Cape May Sheriff last year. A retired Sheriff’s officer and Warden of the county jail, Harron switched parties in 2017 after the county GOP picked a different candidate to run for an open Sheriff’s seat. The 63-year-old Harron is well known in the county, and serves as a volunteer Deputy Fire Chief.
Another possible candidate is former Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten, who now practices at the Archer law firm. Batten, 63, was an Assemblyman for eight months in 1991 – he filled a vacancy when Ed Salmon moved to the Board of Public Utilities – and worked local prosecutor and planning board attorney gigs for eight Cape May towns.
Republicans held the 1st district through the 1990’s. In 2001, Democrats were seeking to control the Assembly after ten years of a Republican majority and they sensed an opportunity. Early in September, they pulled one of their Assembly candidates, Bob Balicki, and replaced him with Van Drew.
Van Drew had won a Cape May County Freeholder race in the very Republican year of 1994. He gave up his seat to run for Assembly in 1997, but lost to Republican Nicholas Asselta by 1,811 votes. He ran for Freeholder again in 2000 and beat incumbent Mark Videtto.
Bringing in Van Drew turned out to be a smart move. Jim McGreevey carried the 1st by 4,546 votes, and Van Drew took out Republican Assemblyman Jack Gibson by 1,204 votes. That same year, longtime State Sen. James Cafiero survived only narrowly – a 441 vote margin against the son of former Democratic Rep. Bill Hughes. Asselta moved up to the Senate in 2003, and Van Drew challenged him in 2007 and won.