A few weeks ago I mentioned that it looked likely that no prominent Republican (other than Atlantic County Freeholder Board Chairman Frank Formica) would step up and challenge state Sen. Jim Whelan in District 2.
I have learned that this is not the case. A very prominent Republican is preparing to come forward, and it's very likely that he will make a run.
Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles is close to entering the race. When you make a snap consideration regarding Balles' viability, I think it's important to note that almost no one thought that Balles would defeat five-term incumbent Sheriff Jim McGettigan, but he did so by a wide margin.
Even the smartest Republicans counseled Balles at the time that he was sure to lose that countywide race, but that it would be good experience for a future run.
Balles always exceeds expectations. He does so because he has what I call a likeability quotient, and because no one works harder than Balles.
Another key reason that Balles could make a serious run at Whelan is his ability to earn more votes in Pleasantville and Atlantic City than any other Republican in Atlantic County.
Balles is a retired captain from the Pleasantville Police Department, where he has forged many positive and long-lasting relationships over more than 25 years.
Another important advantage that Balles has over any other Republican in Atlantic County is the fact that he doesn't simply concede Atlantic City and Pleasantville to the Democratic nominee. Balles is willing to fight for every vote. Other Republicans have mocked him for the amount of time and energy that he has spent over the years in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
Balles' candidacy for the state Senate is not confirmed, but multiple sources say that it is nearly 95 percent certain that he will make this run.
It's an off election year for Balles. In that sense, it's a free run. However, in electoral politics, nothing is free. A lot depends on a how a race like this goes – just ask Jim McGettigan, who took on Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson in the year before his run against Balles.
If past is prologue, then Balles has an uphill climb despite his great track record as a high vote-getter. When former County Executive Dick Squires ran against McGettigan, it was a disaster. The voters just couldn't picture Squires as their sheriff, despite the fact that Squires regularly was the high vote-getter when he ran for freeholder or executive.
McGettigan's run against County Executive Levinson was even more devastating. McGettigan embarrassed himself in that election, and the damage was so severe that it carried into his race the following year against Balles.
McGettigan was caught by Levinson in a gaffe so large that it disqualified him the following year. McGettigan didn't know the size of his own Sheriff Department's annual budget.
Whelan will enter the 2013 race as the frontrunner. He's earned that. Balles would give him a very tough race.
Also, Balles would benefit from Gov. Chris Christie’s name being located right above his on the ballot. This may prove to be very similar to the coattails that Barack Obama demonstrated in the past election.
Whelan is very well liked by the voters. He also has demonstrated some crossover appeal, whereby certain Republican voters support him over the years.
That probably started because for many years the Atlantic City local offices were nonpartisan. Whelan ran at large as both a council and mayoral candidate. This created a pattern where many Republicans, Democrats and independents became accustomed to voting for him, because they didn't have to consider party affiliation.
Now, with the basic 95 percent monolithic voting patterns of Atlantic City and Pleasantville, Whelan begins each election with a massive lead over any Republican challenger.
To defeat Whelan, Balles will have to find the magic that he conjured up against McGettigan.
It is important to note that Whelan is not McGettigan. Whelan knows his facts and figures as well as any elected official in Atlantic County and the state of New Jersey.
He has also been successful at "disappearing" during off election years, but he is seen any and everywhere when it counts the most during an election year.
A Whelan vs. Balles race for one of the most important Senate seats in the state would be highly competitive. Both men are well-liked. Both are fierce competitors and excellent retail politicians.
This race is not yet set in stone, but it's getting real close.
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