Election Diary has been asking the same question of political insiders for a couple of weeks now: Which of the region's three marginal seats is the most likely to be flipped on May 21.
The answer is increasingly Hunter.
The Nats are bringing in soldiers to fight James Thomson's ground game in the electorate, as they did effectively in the Upper Hunter state by-election last year when the party held the seat with a 3.3 per cent swing.
It's a sign they think the seat could be in play, which would be extraordinary given it has only ever been held by Labor and 29-year-old candidate James Thomson is far from a household name.
Out of Hunter, Paterson and Shortland, Hunter has the tightest Labor margin at 3 per cent. It also has no Labor incumbent, as Joel Fitzgibbon is retiring after 26 years.
A Labor source said the party was expecting a "tough fight".
Anthony Albanese picked Dan Repacholi in September as his candidate to defend the Fitzgibbon turf, leaving the Olympic shooter seven months to build his brand as a politician.
The Nats won just 23.5 per cent of the primary vote in 2019 and will want to get that close to 30 per cent this time.
Preference flows will be crucial, and no doubt independent Stuart Bonds' phone has been running hot after he polled a healthy 21.8 per cent of the primary last time as a One Nation candidate.
Bonds, who works in the mines, met with Matt Canavan when the Liberal senator visited the Hunter on Monday. He's also had a chat with Repacholi.
Bonds disagrees with Labor's plan to cut emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, but he is also no fan of the Coalition's changes to industrial relations laws last year.
He quit One Nation because it supported the changes, and he told ED this week he preferred Labor's IR position.
Bonds could draw a primary vote somewhere in the low teens. Both the Nats and Labor will be keen for a look at his how-to-vote cards.
ED suspects the minor parties will get a guernsey at the top of his preferences, followed by the Nats, Labor and Greens.
One Nation attracted 12.3 per cent of the vote in the Upper Hunter by-election, though, unlike Hunter, the state seat doesn't include the west side of Lake Macquarie.
Bonds, One Nation's Dale McNamara and UAP could poll well north of 20 per cent combined.
Labor will not want to see its 37 per cent primary vote from 2019 slip further.
Speaking of James Thomson, some observers have been enjoying the sartorial flourish of his sleeveless, Nationals-branded puffy jacket, which has been ever-present during the campaign.
The jacket made another outing in Scotts Flat (just outside Singleton for you metro types) on Wednesday when it joined its owner for a meet-and-greet with Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and local dairy farmers.
Littleproud was announcing a million bucks for a better database to track dairy price movements, which he regards as a win for farmers in their battles with the big two supermarket chains.
The publication of more national polling this week has confirmed the expectations of many in politics: We could well be heading for minority government.
One local source said he had heard "crazy" talk of independent, unpublished polling showing incumbent candidates of varying political colours facing big swings against them next month.
But another well connected political type was putting his money on either party forming government in their own right.
Four weeks to go.
The close of the electoral rolls this week showed that Paterson is the second largest seat out of 151 in Australia.
The electorate has swelled from 123,000 voters in 2019 to 132,123 this year, reflecting rapid population increases in the Maitland area.
Paterson is second only to Macarthur (133,501), in south-west Sydney, on the list of Australia's largest electoral divisions and is one of only four seats with more than 130,000 voters.
Hunter is also relatively large at 128,438, 7000 voters bigger than it was three years ago. Newcastle (122,587) is up 4000 and Shortland (116,418) up 2000 on 2019.
By comparison, 14 federal seats in NSW have fewer than 110,000 voters (the Sydney eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth has just 103,709).
All the region's seats are above the national average of 114,098 enrolled voters.
Paterson was radically redrawn in 2016 to include the traditional Labor districts around Kurri Kurri, and NSW is due for another boundary redistribution next year.
Newcastle Liberal candidate Katrina Wark has told Election Diary she will gift her council salary to local youth programs if she wins a seat in federal parliament.
Wark was elected to Newcastle council for the first time in December. As a councillor she gets paid more than $30,000 a year. MPs get a base salary of $211,000.
In the unlikely event she overturns Sharon Claydon's large margin on May 21, Wark said she would keep doing both jobs but would donate her council salary.
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