MILLVILLE, N.J. — Will Cunningham is in Millville in a pocket of hippie liberalism down a back road in deep South Jersey: the home of Pat and Al Federici, political idealists from the old school of door knocks.
Some of his classmates from Vineland High School are there, the ones who called him Bill and remember Cunningham as a studious football player who went on to the Ivy League. He has just come from speaking at a march for a victim of gun violence. Cunningham says it has recently dawned on him that if he wins a seat in New Jersey's Second Congressional District, he would become the first openly gay black member of Congress.
The odds for Cunningham, 32, are long in the Democratic primary, as they are for candidate Tanzie Youngblood, 62, the retired teacher who has taken on the mantle of women and black women's resistance, and activist Nate Kleinman. They face the well-financed Democrat Jeff Van Drew, now a state senator.
But the better odds that New Jersey will be in position to deliver anywhere from two to five Democratic victories in U.S. House districts currently held by Republicans have elevated the state's usually sleepy primary to center stage.
On Tuesday, the Democratic Party's efforts to flip the House from Republican control will be tested in two states: California, where a glut of Democratic candidates has complicated things in several competitive districts, and in New Jersey.
In the sprawling Second District, which sent Republican Frank LoBiondo back to Washington a dozen times, the local Democratic Party numbness is wearing off.
It's Van Drew — a conservative pro-gun dentist who as a Democrat has won numerous state elections in Republican parts of the district — who has the national and local Democratic Party's backing in the national effort to take control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. With the retirement of LoBiondo, and no big-name Republicans willing to face Van Drew, the Second District is considered by many a flip accompli.
In North Jersey's 11th District, it's Mikie Sherrill, 46, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot who flew missions to Europe and the Middle East, former federal prosecutor, and soccer mom of four who has Democrats emptying their pockets. She's facing three other primary challengers for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in the affluent hills of the Republican-leaning stretches of Morris, Essex, Passaic and Sussex Counties.
As in the Second, there is a progressive black female candidate, Tamara Harris, 51, a former social worker and financial analyst, who is feeling overlooked by the national party, and a younger candidate, Alison Heslin, 31, as well as a history teacher, Mark Washburne, 61.
Political analysts see the Second and 11th Districts as the most likely in the state to flip.
"In these two districts … as well as many other districts, we're still seeing really deleterious impact of Republican retirements," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. "Incumbency matters. When incumbents leave, these open seats are much more competitive.
"It's tough to be a Republican member in New Jersey," she added. "Voters are frustrated. You're being whipped by your party to toe the line. But even in the most conservative district in the state, our districts are relatively moderate by national standards."
Campaigning in true Jersey fashion at the Golden Palace Diner in Vineland this week, Youngblood shook hands with Pat Simpson of Millville and declared, "I'm a real Democrat."
Simpson and her companion Ola Ajayi of Philadelphia burst out laughing.
"The way she said it, you know," Ajayi explained later.
"Yea, it's like, a real Democrat, like someone is putting on an act or something," Simpson said, then added: "A lot of them are putting on an act."
That's the argument of progressives like Youngblood and Cunningham, heard in the chatter of the many New Jersey Facebook groups that have sprung up since Trump's election and, in another district Democrats hope to flip, the Fourth, from Jim Keady, a longtime progressive activist who gained notoriety by being told to "Sit down and shut up," by Christie on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
In the Fourth Congressional District, centered around Monmouth and Ocean Counties, the winning Democrat will face incumbent Rep. Chris Smith, a long-serving Republican considered newly vulnerable by the national Democratic Party.
Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman, is facing the party-endorsed Josh Welle, a veteran with an extensive career in the Navy and founder of a technology software company.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, sees the Fourth as a longer shot for Democrats. "Welle's biography lines up with that district," he said, adding, "For him to be able to win, all the dominoes have to be able to fall in the right direction."
Murray sees the Seventh District in North Jersey centered around Hunterdon County "as the real hot one," where five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, rather than digging into his base, has tried to toe the line between the Trump and Trump-queasy factions of his district and party. He voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act and has held town meetings.
He will face either Democrat Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama and who is considered the primary favorite, or attorney Goutam Jois or candidate Peter Jacob, a social worker. Both Jois and Jacob are of Indian descent.
"This is demographically the kind of metropolitan suburban district that Democrats should be able to pick up if they're going to pick up the House," Murray said of the Seventh, which voted for Hillary Clinton. "These are the folks who are not at all happy with Donald Trump who are willing to vote for a Democrat. For Leonard Lance, it's not that he hasn't supported Donald Trump, it's whether he's done enough to stop Trumpism."
Finally, in the Third District, centered in Burlington and Ocean Counties, the general election battle is already set.
Democrat Andy Kim will challenge Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur, who has been flying the Trump flag more than any other representative from New Jersey, casting a crucial vote to revive the bill repealing the Affordable Care Act and feeling the heat of the newly formed resistance groups.
Kim, who grew up in Marlton ("It's where I hit my first home run, earned my first paycheck," he touts) and served as a national security adviser in the Obama administration and a strategic adviser in Afghanistan, has raised more than a million dollars to counter the Republican MacArthur, who has raised $1.8 million.
Get ready, Philadelphia, for Third District media-market saturation.
"Kim looks to be making hay," said Harrison. "That is a tough nut to crack. MacArthur will dump a ton of money and will be able to raise a bunch of money from conservatives."
Murray, the pollster, says the race will be "definitely one to watch" in November.