South Jersey's Eighth Legislative District, which spans three counties, has been a Republican stronghold for decades.
But on Tuesday, upstart Democrat Joanne Schwartz fell around 300 votes short of capturing one of the district's two Assembly seats, according to unofficial tallies. She said she has not conceded yet because her party is mulling asking for a recount.
Schwartz, chief executive officer of Rosemont Health & Rehabilitation Center in Bryn Mawr, trails Republican Ryan Peters of Mount Laurel, who is currently a Burlington County freeholder.
The other Assembly seat also was claimed by a Republican, incumbent Joe Howarth. At the back of the pack of candidates was Democrat Mary Ann Merlino.
"I think people underestimated me," said Schwartz, a former Burlington County freeholder who lives in Southampton.
The other Republican incumbent in the district, Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, decided not to seek re-election.
The district's Senate seat went to Republican incumbent Dawn Marie Addiego, a veteran state senator.
Joe Andl, the chairman of the county Democratic Committee, did not return calls and an email asking for comment. He told the Burlington County Times that the last time a Democrat won in the Eighth District was more than 40 years ago. Since that time, however, the district has been slightly redrawn.
The district now includes parts of Burlington and Camden Counties and one town in Atlantic County, Hammonton.
Chris Russell, a political consultant for the three GOP candidates, said in an email that the candidates' "ability to win in a district where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans, in a tough year for the party statewide, speaks to their strength as candidates."
Peters, an associate with the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia, did not return calls for comment. He is a Navy SEAL who saw combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, assigned to SEAL Team 18.
Peters is a member of the all-Republican Burlington County Freeholder Board, with one year left in his term. In 2015, he and running mate Kate Gibbs defeated the Democratic incumbents — Schwartz and her running mate, Aimee Belgard — giving the board its Republican monopoly. On Tuesday, Balvir Singh and Tom Pullion regained two seats on the board for the Democrats, beating Republican incumbents.
In the contest for Senate, Addiego's challenger, Democrat George Youngkin, said he fell short by about 2,400 votes. He noted that Addiego had won four years ago with a 15,000-vote margin. "It was a small victory for the Democrats – we moved the needle closer for the next race," Youngkin said.
But he said his loss was not close enough to consider a recount. He said he was excited, however, that his running mate, Schwartz, might be able to score a win if a potential recount goes in her favor.
Addiego did not respond to calls for comment.
On Tuesday, Schwartz led the pack in Burlington and Camden Counties, but fell short in Hammonton.
Before a judge would order a recount, upon the request of a candidate, all three counties would first have to certify the unofficial tallies they have reported on their websites. They would check for accuracy and then add in the votes submitted by paper ballot.