Party-backed state legislative candidates won primaries Tuesday night in South Jersey's most watched races and set their eyes on the fall, when both parties plan to wage an expensive battle over Gov. Christie's policies and control of the Statehouse.
The narrative of Republicans calling Democrats obstructionists and Democrats accusing the Republicans of harming the middle class will be spun through the coming election, with Christie at the center of the firestorm.
"The distinction between Republicans and Democrats will be whether you agree with Chris Christie's program and political style," said Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political scientist.
The contrast will resonate through all 40 districts because all 120 legislative seats will be on the ballot this year. Republicans are hoping to erode the Democrats' hold on the state Senate and Assembly while Democrats will seek veto-proof majorities.
Even before the voting was finished Tuesday, the hottest race in the region got hotter when Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford declared that he would run as an independent against an old foe, State Sen. James Whelan, a Democrat.
Three times between 1990 and 2001, when Whelan was the mayor of Atlantic City, Langford challenged him in bitter elections. Finally, in 2001, Langford won.
Whelan campaign spokesman Justin Myers accused Republican Senate candidate and current Assemblyman Vince Polistina of setting up Langford to drain votes away from Whelan in his Atlantic City base.
Polistina "is running a third-party candidate, which I'm sure a lot of people in this district will see through," he said.
But Polistina political consultant Chris Russell dismissed the allegation as "ridiculous" and said Whelan was "trying to distract from the issues."
Polistina, 39, of Egg Harbor Township, was first elected to the Assembly in 2007. Whelan, 62, of Atlantic City, was elected to the Assembly in 2005 and the Senate in 2007.
The Whelan-Polistina race in the Second District, which covers most of Atlantic County, could be among the most expensive in the state.
The most famous winner from Tuesday's ballot may not make it to the fall election.
Nine-time Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis, who ran as an uncontested Democrat, is defending his candidacy for state Senate in the Eighth District, on the east side of Burlington County, against a legal challenge to his state residency. Lewis owns homes in Medford and California and voted in California in 2009. Republicans contended - and state courts agreed - that Lewis failed the state's four-year residency test for state Senate. A federal judge could rule this summer on whether New Jersey's residency requirement violates the U.S. Constitution. Lewis would face Republican State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego of Evesham, who also was uncontested in Tuesday's primary.
One person who isn't on the ballot on Nov. 8 is likely to be the most discussed figure in the campaign: Democratic and Republican leaders are framing the debate around Christie.
Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, also a Middlesex County assemblyman, said voters would reject Christie's "government that takes money out of public schools, that denies women access to health care, a government that walks away from initiatives that are designed to reduce global warming."
But Republicans are sending it right back at Democrats.
"Gov. Christie's reforms and his leadership are going to be what we're going to be driving through the summer and the fall," GOP spokesman Rick Gorka said. "Serious issues are facing the state, and Trenton Democrats have done their best to try and stall and ignore the governor's reforms."
Despite the fireworks, Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray said he believed the fall elections would not change the Legislature's composition much.
Right now, Democrats hold a 24-16 edge in the Senate and a 47-33 majority in the Assembly.
In April, the state Apportionment Commission voted to adopt new legislative district maps after the 2010 census to give voters more equalized representation based on population.
While the new maps may not change the power structure in Trenton, they have changed a few political careers.
In the Seventh District, which covers the west side of Burlington County, Democratic Assemblyman Jack Conners' hometown of Pennsauken was penciled out. He announced his retirement.
Republican Assemblyman Joseph Malone found his Northern Burlington County town of Bordentown penciled into the Seventh and will have to introduce himself to voters from the southern part of the county who may not know him.
Party-backed candidates prevailed in contested legislative primaries in Camden, Burlington, and Cape May Counties.
State Sen. Diane Allen of Edgewater Park turned back a challenge from Carole Moore, also of Edgewater Park, in the Seventh District Republican primary. She faces Democratic nominee Gail Cook of Beverly in the general election.
In Camden, Keith Walker of Camden won over George Gallenthin of Woodbury for the Republican nod to face Democratic State Sen. Donald Norcross of Camden.
One of Trenton's most powerful Democrats, State Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union County, pushed back a strong primary challenge and faces Helen Rosales, also of Union County, in the fall.