WASHINGTON - After long targeting South Jersey, national Democrats are looking north this year as they try to chip away at Republicans' congressional majority.

The party's national arm is focusing on unseating North Jersey Republican Rep. Scott Garrett, prioritizing a race in the New York suburbs rather than the Burlington and Ocean County-based Third District, which Democrats have spent years trying to capture.

The change reflects how missteps and money can reshape races.

Garrett has drawn national attention for views that have riled the gay and lesbian community and fueled a fund-raising surge for his Democratic challenger. By contrast, in South Jersey, freshman Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur has largely avoided controversy, and his personal fortune presents an imposing obstacle.

"MacArthur hasn't done anything that gives the Democrats any real fodder to go after him," said Patrick Murray, head of the Monmouth University polling institute. "There's a lot of material to use there against Garrett."

South Jersey Democrats will choose between two potential challengers to MacArthur in the state's June 7 primary - though neither has consolidated local party support and neither has a deep political pedigree.

The district has not been given its customary place on the national party's list of top-tier targets, and independent analysts have dropped it from their ratings of races to watch.

Elsewhere in New Jersey, congressional incumbents face few serious challenges, and heavily partisan districts suggest that most general-election contests won't be competitive - though the presidential race remains a huge wild card.

While Democrats have long worked to flip seats in the moderate Philadelphia suburbs, the national party's recruits have fizzled in Delaware and Chester Counties.

Garrett, however, has provided an opening in New Jersey.

His reported refusal to contribute to national Republicans' congressional campaign efforts because of its support of gay candidates has put a spotlight on some of his more conservative views in a relatively moderate district.

Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer, a former Bill Clinton speechwriter who is unopposed in the primary, has painted Garrett as intolerant and has posted strong early fund-raising reports.

He blasted out another email seeking donations recently after Garrett voted against an amendment to ban Confederate flags at veterans' cemeteries.

"Josh is raising the money that's needed to compete in that race, and that's why people are taking notice," said Bryan Lesswing, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Garrett still had the overall money edge, $2.63 million on hand to $2 million, as he and Gottheimer plan to compete in the expensive New York media market.

Garrett, who faces two primary challengers, has said that he was being targeted because of his Christian faith and opposition to same-sex marriage. He said his vote on the Confederate flag was a defense of free speech.

On paper, the district could be competitive: It leans right, but many of its voters live in the moderate suburbs in Bergen County. President Obama came within three points of Mitt Romney there in 2012. "That's [Gottheimer's] challenge - to take these moderate Republicans and independents and say, 'This time around, you really can't vote for Garrett,' " Murray said.

Republicans, however, point out that Garrett has defeated tough-talking challengers before. And they argue that Gottheimer's ties to the Clintons may prove a burden as Hillary Clinton's negative ratings climb.

"With the Clinton resources comes the Clinton baggage," said Chris Russell, a New Jersey-based GOP consultant.

National Democrats have put the race on its "red to blue" list of their top contests - but it's the only one to get that label in New Jersey.

Party officials say they have not ruled out South Jersey's Third District. "It's definitely on our radar," Lesswing said.

In the past, it had been front-and-center.

Democrats won the district in 2008 and invested heavily in failed attempts to win it back in 2012 and 2014.

But no established figure has stepped up to challenge MacArthur this year.

Burlington County Democrats have endorsed Frederick LaVergne, a loan officer from Delanco who ran as an independent the last two elections.

The party's Ocean County arm is backing Jim Keady, a tavern owner from Spring Lake and former Asbury Park councilman who gained national attention when Gov. Christie told him to "sit down and shut up" at a news conference. Keady was criticizing the governor's work on rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.

The national party prefers Keady. MacArthur's camp said it was taking nothing for granted.

"We're going to run like he's running for his life, especially when you don't know what's happening at the top of the ticket," said Russell, MacArthur's top political adviser.

The presidential race has flummoxed operatives and pundits.

Few dared to predict its down-ballot effects after months of seeing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders defy conventional wisdom.

A strong showing by the upstarts, however, might help outsiders in two primary races, Murray said.

The most competitive one features Republican David Larsen against Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance in a central New Jersey-based district. Republican Craig Heard is also challenging the incumbent.

Larsen, Murray said, might benefit from the kind of voters Trump attracts.

In South Jersey, Murray said, a Sanders surge could aid Alex Law, who is running a long-shot campaign against Democratic U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross in a Camden-based district. That might mean Law wins more votes than under normal circumstances, Murray said - but Law is still highly unlikely to come close to Norcross, brother of the region's unelected Democratic leader, George Norcross III.

In another South Jersey primary, David Cole and Costantino Rozzo are competing for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Frank LoBiondo in the southern Shore counties.

It is the second campaign for Cole, a software engineer from Mantua, who lost the 2014 Democratic primary to Bill Hughes Jr. Rozzo, of Vineland, who has also run before, describes himself this year as a Sanders supporter. LoBiondo is unopposed in the Republican primary.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

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