MOUNT LAUREL TOWNSHIP — Two years ago, Jon Runyan was fighting his battles on the gridiron as an offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The 36-year-old Runyan will now compete in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, representing the 3rd Congressional District, after he upset Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. John Adler on Tuesday night. He won by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent.

“You know, I truly think the politicians in D.C. are going to learn a few things about me really quickly,” Runyan said in his victory speech to a hotel ballroom full of laughter. “I probably will be the largest human being on the Hill. But we’re going to take that largeness and we’re actually going shrink the size of government.”

Runyan’s victory — he had 106,265 votes to 100,188 for Adler with 100 percent of precincts reporting — gave control of the historically right-leaning district, which encompasses parts of Ocean, Burlington, and Camden counties, back to the Republican Party.

Adler’s lone term was the only one for a Democrat in the district since 1882.

The race, one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation, was mired in controversy in recent months after Runyan’s campaign alleged that Adler supporters planted a fake third-party candidate, Peter DeStefano, in the race under the slogan “New Jersey Tea Party” in an attempt to siphon votes away from Runyan. On Tuesday, however, DeStefano won only 3,175 votes.

Adler denied playing a part in the incident.

But the two candidates celebrated, and conceded, in adjacent Mount Laurel hotels — Runyan in the Grand Ballroom of the Westin Hotel on Fellowship Road and Adler in a more modest ballroom on the second floor of the Mount Laurel Marriot, only steps away on Route 73.

The cheering started inside Runyan’s headquarters as the first Ocean County results started coming in shortly after 8 p.m., and the celebrating continued throughout the evening.

But the room erupted as the overhead monitors started blaring music and Runyan took the stage with Gov. Chris Christie.

Runyan started his victory speech by waving his arms to get the crowd cheering. “One last reference” to his prior career, he said.

“We know (changing Congress) is not going to be easy. And people my entire life told me that I was not fast enough, athletic enough, wasn’t smart enough. But you know what? No one has ever outworked me. And I can promise no one is going to do it here,” Runyan said. “Because I tell everyone that my definition of tired and most other people’s definition of tired are two totally different things.”

Adler called Runyan at about 9:45 p.m. and conceded. Shortly after 10 p.m., Adler came on stage to speak to his supporters.

He made a somber crowd laugh and applaud as he thanked them for their support while wishing Runyan luck.

“This is a great day, and God bless this county because people came out to vote," he said. “I don’t think enough people voted for me, but oh well."

He said he called Runyan and vowed to work with him in the future, saying he hoped him to succeed for the good of the 3rd District and his own family.

Some of his supporters were a little less positive in their reaction, such as Richard Spieler, president of the Burlington County AFL-CIO, who had campaigned for the congressman for weeks and had been  working since 6 a.m. Tuesday to support him.

“We don’t think we’re going to get as much support from Jon Runyan, but we’ll wait and see,” he said. “We’re definitely disappointed.”

When Adler was elected years ago, the atmosphere was significantly different.

Supporters were feeling optimistic from the beginning of the night that evening and cheered after Adler came on stage to announce his opponent, Republican Chris Myers, conceded early.

Brandon Pugh, an assistant for the Adler campaign in 2008 who also lived across the street from Runyan for years in Moorestown Township, Burlington County, said it was clearly a momentum swing.

“With the state of everything in the county, we knew it was going to be a tough race,” he said.

Adler drew the largest applause from the crowd as he thanked his wife and his four sons for supporting him, and hoped the newly recomposed House of Representatives would work toward making life better for the country’s families.

“What worries me, however, is as we go forward I don’t want the middle class to be forgotten,” he said.

He left with his family within minutes after stepping down from the stage, taking few questions

Runyan picked up valuable ground on Adler in the heavily Republican Ocean County, where he won 51,583 to 32,064. Adler lost there by less than 16,000 votes in 2008.

And while Adler still won by almost 5,000 in Camden County and was ahead by almost 9,000 in Burlington County, his margins of victory in these counties were lower than in 2008.

Runyan also overcame a massive $2 million fundraising deficit to win his first elected office. As of Sept. 30, he had raised only a reported $1.1 million, including a $300,000 personal loan to his own campaign, compared with Adler’s reported $3 million.

Christie, who stumped for Runyan throughout the campaign, was at Runyan’s side again Tuesday night to help him celebrate.

“Right from the beginning, I’ve been telling people in New Jersey that the most important race in the state, to me, was the 3rd Congressional District. And Jon Runyan has brought it home for us,” Christie said while introducing the congressman-elect. “No candidate in state worked harder than Jon … and Jon is now going to go down to Congress as part of a Republican majority to take our country back.”

But Runyan gave credit for his win to his family, campaign workers, Republican leadership, the tea party movement and, of course, Christie.

“Without you, we’re not up here talking about this,” he said.

Contact Robert Spahr:

609-272-7283

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707