- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

PENNS GROVE, N.J. (AP) - Republicans usually dominate two of southern New Jersey’s three congressional districts, but polls suggest that all of them could be in play for Democrats this year.

One poll this month showed that Democrat Bill Hughes Jr. was trailing 10-term incumbent Frank LoBiondo in the 2nd District by just 6 percentage points - a close enough margin to make the race appear within reach for the underdog.

In the 3rd District, there’s little doubt it’s competitive. National Democrats have made the district one of their top priorities for gaining a seat as Aimee Belgard takes on Republican Tom MacArthur.

If the Democrats’ strong showing continues, it would buck a national trend in which Republicans taking seats held by Democrats is far more likely.

President Barack Obama’s approval numbers are low, which gives further momentum to Republicans in a year when history suggests they were going to do well. In mid-term elections during a president’s second term since World War II, the party holding the Oval Office has lost an average of 29 seats.

“We’re in an incredibly difficult environment right now,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said in an interview last week.

The insurgency of the Democratic candidates in southern New Jersey could be a case of all politics being local.

Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist, said that’s especially true in 2nd District where Hughes’ father was a member of Congress for 10 terms before declining to run for election in 1994, when LoBiondo first won the seat.

Hughes’ name remains familiar in the district along the shore and Delaware Bay. The Federal Aviation Administration’s facility near Atlantic City bears it, as does the performing arts center at Ocean City High School. The Richard Stockton College commissioned a poll on the race rather than doing it in-house through the public policy center named for the elder Hughes. That poll that showed LoBiondo ahead, 44 percent to 38.

“I think that we can safely say that this is a testimony of the Hughes name,” Harrison said.

Republicans have a different take: The poll, the only independent one released so far in the election, is wrong. Ian Prior, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, notes it didn’t ask about the four independent candidates in the race. Those candidates are more likely to take votes from the Hughes, he said.

At a Salem County Chamber of Commerce forum last week, Hughes urged voters not to think about the race as a referendum on Obama or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi but on conditions in southern New Jersey, where a wave of Atlantic City casino closings this year have damaged the economy.

“This is a referendum on the state of southern New Jersey,” he said.

He said he wants to spark the region’s economy through a number of measures, including making more use of the shipping port in Salem on the Delaware Bay.

LoBiondo has run a TV commercial with casino workers voicing their support.

At the forum, LoBiondo stressed how he has worked with Democrats to make sure the Army didn’t dispose of a treated form of VX, a Cold War-era nerve agent, in the Delaware River and to make sure Congress paid for rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy struck the region.

“Whether it’s fighting for something or fighting against something bad from happening,” he said, “I’ve been there.”

He says he is not doing anything differently this year because of the poll.

Most of the voters at the forum were there to cheer on their favorite. But 84-year-old James Temmermand, who served in the U.S. Army in Korea, said he was still deciding. “Frank’s been in the office and he’s doing a pretty good job for the veterans,” he said. But he’s still considering Hughes - and said that his vote will be for the candidate and not about the balance of political power.

The 3rd District race is bitter and expensive, partly because the district is divided between the Philadelphia and New York City media markets.

The seat representing an area stretching from the Philadelphia suburbs to the shore has long been held by Republicans.

An exception came in 2008, a year when everything was lined up for Democrats. The seat was open because the Republican incumbent was retiring, and Obama brought new Democratic voters who helped Democrat John Adler win the seat.

Two years later, Adler lost his re-election bid to former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan, a Republican. With Runyan not running, the seat is open again.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Commission has spent more than $1 million on commercials beating up the largely self-financed MacArthur so far. MacArthur has responded with ads questioning Belgard’s integrity.

National Democrats have also paid some attention in the other southern New Jersey district, the 1st, in the Philadelphia suburbs. Longtime Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat, left office this year, opening the way for state Sen. Donald Norcross, the brother of Democratic powerbroker George Norcross to take the seat. He’s facing Republican Garry Cobb, another former Philadelphia Eagle.

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Colvin reported from Newark.

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Follow Mulvihill at https://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill. Follow Colvin at https://www.twitter.com/colvinj .

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