Well connected solicitor Brooke Vitnell has emerged as a frontrunner to take on Labor in the up-for-grabs seat of Paterson at the next federal election.
Ms Vitnell, whose husband, Julian Leembruggen, is a long-time media adviser to Scott Morrison, would not comment on Wednesday when asked if she planned to run against Meryl Swanson.
But Liberal sources say the former political staffer is shaping as an "excellent" candidate to wrest back Paterson after veteran MP Bob Baldwin stepped down before the 2016 election.
Ms Swanson said Ms Vitnell "obviously might want to put up her hand".
"I've heard a few names kicked around, and hers has been one of them," she said.
Ms Vitnell worked in Mr Baldwin's office and has been employed as an adviser by federal MPs Steven Ciobo, Michaelia Cash and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
The former St Phillip's Christian College Port Stephens captain lives in Medowie and works in the legal practice of her father, David.
Her resumé of community involvement resembles that of someone contemplating a political career.
She is secretary of Port Stephens Community Drug Action Team, president of the COPSY/jupiter youth mental health service, Port Stephens Women in Business member and a volunteer with Rotary, Lions, Port Stephens Koalas and Marine Rescue.
Her Facebook page shows she spent an evening out in December with Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, NSW MLC Taylor Martin and two Maitland councillors, Ben Mitchell and Kanchan Ranadive.
The irony of this gathering taking place at Cessnock Leagues Club, the spiritual home of dissident Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, might not have been lost on those present.
Thanks in part to Mr Fitzgibbon, the Hunter is suddenly, and finally, a focus for both parties at the election, which will be at the end of this year or early in 2022.
A survey of voting intentions, reportedly commissioned by building unions and made public last week, suggested the Liberals were on track to win the Paterson and Shortland electorates.
The November poll showed Labor support collapsing in Paterson by 11 percentage points since the 2019 election to 30 per cent and by 13 percentage points to 28 per cent in Pat Conroy's Shortland seat.
The survey put the Liberals' primary vote at 43 and 45 per cent respectively.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union's national political organiser, Elizabeth Doidge, used the polling to push for Labor to replace Anthony Albanese as leader.
Liberal sources regarded the polling, and the political motivations behind it, with scepticism, but it is clear the party regards Paterson as winnable after Maitland businessman Sachin Joshi halved Ms Swanson's margin from 10 to 5 per cent in 2019.
Ms Vitnell will need to win the endorsement of branch members, but Liberal sources said her experience, Canberra connections and the backing of Mr Baldwin would stand her in good stead.
The Liberals and the Nationals gained significant ground on Labor in Shortland, Paterson and Hunter in 2019 despite fielding an inexperienced team which was gagged from talking to the media.
Mr Fitzgibbon has launched a self-styled "put the labour back into Labor" campaign from the backbench after almost losing his seat to a political novice last time and quitting shadow cabinet in November.
Ms Swanson said she agreed with Mr Fitzgibbon's message about winning back blue-collar workers and took the recent "reputable" survey results seriously.
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