- Associated Press - Saturday, September 22, 2018

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - An estimated 2,000 die-hard New Jersey Democrats packed an Atlantic City casino this week for a kind of pep rally ahead of the midterm elections, complete with optimistic slogans predicting they will win control of the entire state congressional delegation.

But the reality is that while Democrats have an overall advantage in New Jersey, run state government and have the wind at their back because of President Donald Trump’s low job approval here, they face stiff competition in the U.S. Senate race and in a handful of House contests.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who spoke at the state committee on Friday, cast the optimism as part of the party’s efforts to compete any- and everywhere. The idea is you can’t win if you don’t compete.

He pointed to Democratic victories in gubernatorial contests last year in New Jersey and Virginia as well as Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama.

“The new DNC is about electing Democrats up and down the ballot from the school board to the Oval Office,” he said.

Democrats control seven of the state’s 12 House districts and both Senate seats. This year all 12 House seats are on the ballot and Democrat Bob Menendez is defending his Senate post against Republican Bob Hugin.

There’s also a historical trend that shows the party opposite a new president tends to pick up seats in Congress during the midterms, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.

But could there be an across-the-board victory?

Not so fast, said Dworkin.

“We would be shocked to see a Democratic sweep because these are gerrymandered districts and they have been designed to help these Republicans,” he said.

Republicans have a registration advantage in the open race in the 11th District where Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen is retiring, and representatives Chris Smith in the 4th and Tom MacArthur in the 3rd carry the advantage of incumbency.

In the Senate race, polls show Menendez has lost ground from a double-digit lead to single-digits against former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin after months of negative TV ads and millions of dollars in campaign spending form Hugin. Hugin in bankrolling his own campaign.

Even so, polls, apparent voter enthusiasm and Trump’s unpopularity in New Jersey give Democrats a basis for optimism.

In northern New Jersey’s 11th District, polls suggest a tight race between Democrat Mikie Sherrill and Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber. Republicans have a registration advantage, but Sherrill has nearly $3 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission, compared with Webber’s less than $200,000.

There are similarities in the 3rd and 7th districts well. In southern New Jersey’s 3rd District, Democrat Andy Kim is taking on Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur and has had fundraising success. Democrat Tom Malinowski in the 7th District is locked in a tight contest against incumbent GOP congressman Leonard Lance.

In the Atlantic City-based 2nd District Democrat Jeff Van Drew has a sizable lead in polls over his GOP opponent Seth Grossman.

Democrats run government in New Jersey, but are down and out in Washington, where Trump and Republicans are on defense in the Nov. 6 election.

The party will need to flip 24 seats to take the House, and New Jersey is seen as crucial to the effort.

Some of the party faithful at the convention in Atlantic City were not so concerned with flipping all the GOP-held seats. William Ravitz, a former independent who became a Democrat because of Bernie Sanders, said he’s working to elect Sherrill in the Morris County-centered district.

Winning just enough to take the speaker’s gavel back is what concerns him.

“The country’s on a bad path. Taking back the House (that’s), the biggest thing,” he said.

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