The 3rd Congressional District race was set to be one of the most watched in the nation, even before former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan became the Republican frontrunner to challenge Democrat John Adler for his House of Representatives seat. Add a former Pro Bowl athlete and a recent Supreme Court decision that could dramatically increase campaign spending by interest groups, and the race may set records for money spent.
“I think both campaigns will raise ungodly sums of money,” said Dave Wasserman, an expert on House races for the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report, adding, “I would be surprised if total spending stays under 6 or 7 million dollars.”
Both parties have a lot at stake in the race.
Republicans are still simmering about Adler seizing the district in 2008, after more than a century of Republican control.
“It’s a seat that was controlled by Republicans for many, many years, and I think it was just a mistake that the Republicans let it go to Adler,” said Republican Ocean Township Mayor Joe Lachawiec, who interviewed for the party’s endorsement before dropping out to endorse Runyan. “I think we’re going all-out on the grass-roots level to make sure Jon Runyan wins.”
And state Democrats will have their eyes focused on a district that will be a key battle the national party will need to win if it wants to keep its superiority in the House, which stands at 253 blue seats to 178 red seats.
The big show
“This is probably going to be the highest-profile race in the state. I can’t imagine any other.” said Democratic former Toms River Mayor Paul Brush, a friend of Adler’s.
There will be at least three Republicans running in the June 8 primary, although the Republican organizations in Ocean, Burlington and Camden counties have endorsed Runyan. The primary winner will seek to regain the district Adler earned by narrowly beating Republican Medford Township Mayor Chris Myers.
Runyan is already speaking with national Republican figures such as House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who have been giving him advice about entering politics. Runyan said he has been interested in politics for most of his life but also has been reluctant to talk about it publicly.
“Especially because, being in a team environment, one of the things you’re taught in high school and early on in college is no gambling, you don’t talk about women and we don’t talk politics,” he said, “because that’s what breaks up the team.”
But after kicking off his campaign March 18, Runyan has been traveling the district, talking politics and doing research to prepare for his challenge to Adler, a seasoned political veteran.
Adler, 50, of Cherry Hill, is a moderate freshman legislator with more than 20 years of political experience and a voting record that includes supporting the federal stimulus package and the regulation of carbon emissions, but not the recently passed health care reform bill. Runyan, 36, of Mount Laurel, Burlington County, is a fiscal conservative who has no prior political experience — a background he considers an asset in a time of incumbent unpopularity.
“Consider the contrast in not only stature, but style, between John Adler and Jon Runyan,” Wasserman said.
Adler, a well-spoken man of average height and slim build, is known as an effective fundraiser who is well-versed on the issues and can debate them efficiently.
He also can do so with wit. In one debate during the 2008 campaign, Myers said he would be more effective at bringing jobs to the district, citing his experience at Lockheed Martin, where he said he created new positions.
“Well, that’s fine,” Adler replied. “I’ll go on to Washington and the mayor can just stay here and continue hiring people.”
Runyan is 6-foot-7 and solidly built, even after slimming down following his NFL retirement. He speaks colloquially and presents an average-guy appeal, nurturing a commonsense, hard-working attitude he attributes to being raised in his blue-collar hometown of Flint, Mich.
Runyan said it was not until the passing last year of several massive spending bills that he considered getting involved in politics. Now, he is trying to establish himself as a prospective legislator in the minds of district voters, most of whom loved him as Eagles fans, or hated him as Giants fans.
“We’re eager to introduce the other side of Jon,” Runyan campaign consultant Chris Russell said. “For us, it’s the consummate career politician against the ordinary guy involved in his community who wants to go to Washington and make a difference.”
Adler’s camp responded by pointing to political publications that have ranked him as one of Washington’s most centrist legislators, using it to blunt the attacks by Republicans labeling him a radical liberal.
Adler has not fully kicked off his campaign, and his staff declined multiple times over a period of two weeks to make him available for an interview, saying he was busy with health care reform and other legislation.
“The congressman’s attention is directed on the critical issues facing our community, such as efforts to revive the local economy, create jobs and reduce the deficit,” his spokeswoman, Kathryn Prael, wrote in an e-mail message. “He is not spending his time focused on campaign strategy.”
Wasserman said the district leans Democratic, and that the burden of proof will be on Runyan to show he is a viable candidate who can transition smoothly from athletic to political life. His inexperience will be an advantage on one hand because he does not have a record to defend, Wasserman said, but a disadvantage if he cannot show expertise in the issues.
“Runyan has a very steep learning curve,” Wasserman said. “Democrats will jump on every rookie mistake Runyan makes.”
To get their messages out, each party is expected to shatter spending records.
The sprawling 3rd District includes Ocean and Burlington counties and Cherry Hill in Camden County. Its geography means candidates will have to advertise in both the Philadelphia and New York media markets, making it expensive to reach voters.
In 2008, Adler spent $2,863,993 to defeat Myers, who spent $1,256,252.
But more will likely be spent this time. In January, a divided Supreme Court struck down decades of campaign finance laws and allowed unions and corporations to spend limitlessly on advertising, mailings and phone calls to support candidates. Unless Congress takes action to curb election spending and counteract the court’s decision, this year’s numbers will dwarf those of 2008.
Even Republicans acknowledge Adler’s ability to raise funds based on his past performance, and incumbents typically have a natural advantage with fundraising because their positions give them a higher profile.
Runyan made millions in the NFL. In his prime as an Eagle, he signed a six-year deal for $30 million in 2000, and had endorsement deals with major companies such as Ford and McDonald’s.
Runyan would not say how much of his own money he would spend, only that he would do whatever is necessary when the time comes.
He also made a reputation in the NFL as a dirty player, a label he said was unfair.
“I think that was just because I wasn’t their buddy,” he said, having previously said the modern NFL was getting too soft.
But when it comes to politics, he said he would not shy away from being as aggressive as he was on the football field.
“You got to do what you got to do to win,” Runyan said.
Before Runyan spends any money attacking Adler, however, he has to earn the party’s nomination, and to do that he has to defeat former Tabernacle Township Committeeman Justin Murphy and Ocean County businessman Joseph Rullo in the primary.
Rullo also has never held a political position, but has worked in campaigns for years and ran as a Democrat for the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
He has been campaigning extensively, traveling to all three counties and speaking at public meetings about all sorts of issues. He already sends out more announcements and campaign statements than all other campaigns combined, labeling himself as “Ordinary” Joe Rullo to distinguish himself from Runyan.
Murphy earned more than 6,200 votes in 2008’s Republican primary, good enough for about 25 percent of the vote and a third-place finish behind Jack Kelly, who was endorsed by the Ocean County Republican organization.
Murphy, who is labeling himself the more conservative choice and has already earned the endorsements of several local tea-party organizations, said his campaign is proud of its 2008 performance and expects to improve this time by getting more exposure.
He said he has already raised more money at this point than he did for all of his last campaign — $12,422, campaign finance reports show — but plans to show that he can earn votes without dramatic spending.
“I think what I proved in 2008 is I do not need to out-raise the county-backed candidates in order to win,” he said.
Both he and Rullo are trying to prove that voters want a competitive process for choosing a nominee, rather than having one anointed months before the primary, as Runyan has been.
“I simply believe that the voters in the Republican Party should be able to pick someone through a competitive primary process,” Murphy said.
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