Late last year, Congressman Jon Runyan announced his decision to retire from Congress after two terms. Runyan never intended to make a career out of being in Congress and is staying true to that principal. His decision to retire opened up likely the only true competitive congressional race in the state this year. With any open race, there will likely be a field of candidates to arise.
The Republican who fell short in last year's U.S. Senate special election would be the first Republican candidate to announce their intentions of running for Runyan's seat. After some consideration, Steve Lonegan decided to relocate to the 3rd Congressional District and make another run at Congress. He fell short last year in his challenge against Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in their open race to fill the vacancy left by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Lonegan's style is better suited for a congressional race where you are trying to appeal to a narrower group of voters as opposed to a statewide electorate.
As Lonegan would express,
I have the hottest donor list in the country. My name ID there is over 90 percent. I have a terrific campaign team that’s ready to rock, is experienced and seasoned. I have coordinators in every town in the district, in every church and synagogue. I have got terrific support on the ground from mayors, municipal chairmen, elected officials. Will I have the party bosses' support? I don’t know about that.
Lonegan will have a trickier path to his party's nomination than he had a year ago in this race. A group of candidates looked to be prepared to fight for the GOP nomination. Besides Lonegan; Mayor Randy Brown of Evesham, Burlington County Freeholder Bruce Garganio, former Governor Chris Christie official John Giordano, and former Mayor Tom MacArthur of Randolph had their names in the mix early on. Lonegan's announcement soured some party officials in the district who thought he may have been jumping the gun as there is a nominating process almost that occurs in the district and Burlington and Ocean Counties.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would not waste too much time already going after the likely front runner.
For the DCCC,
The Tea Party sent a clear sign today that its sights are set on South Jersey and radical Steve Lonegan will be their standard-bearer in this swing district.
Lonegan is not alone in terms of being new to the district and wanting to replace Runyan as MacArthur too would be a transplant to the district. Two years ago; Shelley Adler, the Democratic candidate and the widow of former Congressman John Adler, caught some flack from Republicans because she was from Cherry Hill, which had gotten drawn out of the district to make it slightly more favorable to Republicans. Lonegan and MacArthur would be relocating from much further than right outside the district's boundaries.
While he did state last year that his defeat to Booker would be his last campaign, Lonegan sees an opportunity he cannot pass up.
I did (referring to his comments last year). I believe I am the best candidate to keep this critical seat to preserve the future. I’ll step up to the plate and do it.
Referencing his contest against Booker, Lonegan has also pointed to the fact that he carried the district with 54% of the vote.
On the Democratic side, Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard emerged early on as the favorite for the Democratic nomination.
The DCCC has not been the only one weighing in on Lonegan's candidacy as Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ9) sees a great chance for the Democrats to pick up Runyan's seat if Lonegan is the GOP nominee.
As Pascrell has voiced,
It's great for us. If he wins a (Republican) primary, that is great news for us.
While it should not come as a surprise that Democrats are lining up to take their shots at Lonegan, two influential GOP officials in the district seemed to prefer MacArthur early on over Lonegan. Both Burlington County GOP Chairman Bill Layton and Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore liked MacArthur over Lonegan.
Layton and Gilmore were not alone in their skepticism of Lonegan running in the district as state Senator Dawn Addiego (R-8) has been especially vocal.
I find it ironic that Steve Lonegan chose to announce his candidacy for Congress on President Ronald Reagan’s birthday, apparently trying to wrap himself in Reagan’s legacy when the similarities between Mayor Lonegan and President Reagan are virtually non-existent. President Reagan promoted the inclusive ‘big tent’ approach to building our party, and in the process strengthened the Republican brand with an optimistic, hopeful vision for the future of our country that captured the imagination – and the votes – of a vast majority of Americans. Unfortunately, Mayor Lonegan has taken the exact opposite approach over the last decade, and the results have been disastrous. The fact of the matter is that Mayor Lonegan has lost elections for Congress, Governor (twice) and the U.S. Senate, in part, due to a style that is angry and positions that are callous. Mayor Lonegan’s record and rhetoric drives away the middle-of-the-road voters we appeal to and win here in Burlington County. If we want to keep the 3rd Congressional District in Republican hands, we need a candidate who will emulate President Reagan in word and deed, not just use his birthday as a prop for a campaign kickoff.
With Lonegan and MacArthur looking like the two frontrunners for the GOP nomination, the two quickly began to take shots at each other.
Lonegan would utter,
I have something nobody else has (referring to his name ID). I don’t need to put in a million of my own money. I will estimate (MacArthur) will need $2 million to get his name ID” to his level.
While MacArthur has exclaimed,
My concern is not Steve Lonegan. I do not believe he can win in a general election. My job is to let (people of Ocean and Burlington counties) know who I am, what has shaped my life and what I stand for. I view this as three elections, there’s the convention in both counties, there’s the primary and, obviously, there’s the general. My focus right now is just letting the people in these counties know who I am.
With most of the focus taking place on the Republican side, a wrinkle was entered in the Democratic primary as Howard Kleinhendler entered the race. Kleinhendler ran unsuccessfully in 2010. Most of the Democratic officials in the district have slowly been rallying around Belgard, but that has not stopped Kleinhendler from believing he could win.
I plan on running an issues-oriented campaign which speaks to things that matter in our daily lives. We need to improve Obamacare so more people can get affordable insurance while at the same time find ways to ease the burdens of the program on small businesses.
Right after Kleinhendler entered so did Jack Fanous, the co-founder and executive director of the veterans group G.I. Go Fund.
I am raising money and things are looking pretty good. The Democratic Party is looking for a path to victory…and I believe I’m the only one in the race who can actually win the race. I bring a demographic that generally doesn't vote Democratic (talking about voters who are veterans).
Switching gears back to the Republican side, heated discussions especially in Ocean County opened the door for potentially a third leading candidate: Toms River Councilman Maurice Hill. Unlike Lonegan and MacArthur, Hill is from the district and he has been adamant about being the best choice as someone actually from the district.
Living in Ocean County gives me an advantage. I’ve lived here all my life and I have confidence if people look at the record and look at what everybody brings to the table that I don’t think there’s any doubt (I will get the nomination).
While things looked somewhat wide open on the GOP side with three potential leading candidates, the Democrats were hoping to finalize their joint support behind one candidate and the DCCC officially put their weight behind Belgard.
In response, Belgard would state;
I am honored by the outpouring of support we've had here in the 3rd Congressional District. People from Burlington and Ocean Counties have joined our grassroots campaign to end the partisan gridlock in Washington, and stand up for our veterans, seniors and middle-class families.
As Belgard was receiving a boost by the DCCC, MacArthur was getting an equally as important boost on the Republican side in Ocean County as the County Screening Committee endorsed him. That endorsement was backed up by the same committee in Burlington County.
According to Burlington County Regular Republican Screening Committee Chairman Steve Solomon,
Our Screening Committee, as well as our Republican Municipal Chairs, are proud to enthusiastically endorse Tom MacArthur for Congress in the Third District and will forward our recommendation to the full County Committee for their consideration. Not only were we deeply impressed by Tom’s experience of helping to create jobs and prosperity for his employees and their families, but also by his vision for the future of our party and our nation. Tom’s compelling story as a self-made success and someone who has dedicated his life to giving back to those in need made him stand out among the candidates we interviewed. We believe he will make an excellent Congressman for the people of Burlington County and the people of the Third District.
MacArthur would respond to the endorsement by voicing,
I’m honored to receive support from both the Burlington County Republican Screening Committee, and the Republican Municipal Chairs. I am confident that my message of economic growth and letting hardworking people keep more of what they earn, delivering smaller government that still gives a hand up to those in need, and creating opportunity for all will resonate with Republicans, Independents and Democrats this fall who want to move our country in a more positive, productive direction.
Shortly after the Ocean County Republican Organization took the recommendation of the county committee and put it into action as they officially endorsed MacArthur.
MacArthur would add to his previous comments,
One strenuous process comes to an end and another one starts. I want to thank the county party leadership for running a fair and open process that brought the best out of all of us. We were required to go to every town. …I gained a great deal of respect for those that were competitors in this race. There were times when Mo Hill could have given my speech and I could have given Jim Byrnes' speech. Many of you worked very hard for someone you wanted to win. That’s what makes this such a great party.
Lonegan was undeterred by the endorsement going on to state,
What you saw was the establishment picking an establishment candidate. This district is going to become the poster child for establishment Republicans trying to push out conservatives. I have the polling. It's in my favor. In the end, the only polling that matters is what happens on June 3rd.
The Ocean County Democratic Committee too would choose their preferred candidate and it was much less contested as the Republican side as Belgard again received a crucial endorsement for her candidacy.
For Wyatt Earp, Chairman of the Ocean County Democratic Committee,
Aimee Belgard is a tireless advocate for her constituents and is steadfastly committed to making sure that Ocean County residents and small businesses get the resources they need to recover from Hurricane Sandy. Aimee is the best candidate to help solve the problems Ocean County families face and she will work together to find solutions that create jobs and get our economy moving again. Aimee has our full support and we look forward to working with her in the coming weeks and months to make sure she’s the next representative from New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional district.
With the DCCC already backing Belgard, the National Republican Congressional Committee began to eye MacArthur on the heels of his growing support in the district.
For NRCC Chairman Greg Walden,
I am confident that Tom MacArthur will be a successful and dedicated member of this program (the Young Guns campaign for promising Republican candidates) and that he will continue to work hard to reach the crucial campaign benchmarks that have been established ahead of the 2014 elections. Tom’s conservative principles and priorities provide a stark contrast to Barack Obama’s irresponsible agenda. New Jersey’s hardworking families deserve better than skyrocketing health care costs, financial instability and mountains of debt on their backs.
As the race turned towards the point when petitions had to be filed, most of the race's complexion stayed the same minus one little twist with Fanous withdrawing on the Democratic side and Bruce Todd officially entered on the Democratic side.
With Lonegan and MacArthur still looking as two candidates battling for their party's nomination, the DCCC took aim at both men.
According to Marc Brumer from the DCCC,
We are giving South Jersey residents the opportunity to connect directly with Tom MacArthur and Steven Lonegan and tell them to oppose the Republican budget that heaps tax breaks and handouts on special interests and the wealthiest Americans, and forces the middle class to pay the price. With this radical budget, MacArthur, Lonegan, and Republicans in Congress are turning their backs on New Jersey's middle class families, raising their taxes, costing them jobs, and ending the Medicare guarantee.
As it continued to seem that most of the endorsements and support were going towards MacArthur, Lonegan would land the support of a former congressman in Ron Paul.
Paul would state,
Steve Lonegan will be a fantastic congressman for the third district of New Jersey. His commitment to smaller government and more personal liberties is exactly what we need in Washington.
Lonegan would also get the support of former Alaska Governor and 2008 GOP Vice President nominee Sarah Palin.
Steve is the type of conservative leader we need. He believes in the free market principles this country was founded on because he has seen first hand how they can lead to success. Overcoming adversity in his own life, Steve built his successful business from the ground up and was elected mayor of Bogota, NJ. In Washington, he will be a dedicated fighter for lower taxes, balanced budgets, and lessening the burdens of regulation on small businesses.
While it looks like Belgard should coast to the Democratic nomination, there have been mostly words and party politics on the Republican side. However, a Monmouth University poll in the waning days of the primary campaign has provided a snapshot of where voters might stand. By a 45-36 margin, Republican voters prefer MacArthur over Lonegan. 20% are undecided and thus leave the race just as open as ever. Broken down further, MacArthur holds a lead over Lonegan in both Burlington and Ocean Counties. It is 47-33 MacArthur in Burlington and 45-36 in Ocean.
As Patrick Murray, Monmouth University poll director, would outline;
It is important to remember that 1-in-5 voters remain up for grabs in this race. Neither candidate has an advantage on favorability or the issues with this undecided group. This provides some room for Lonegan's attacks to cut into MacArthur's lead. On the other hand, some underlying dynamics work in MacArthur’s favor. Lonegan’s support comes largely from very conservative Republicans who infrequently participate in primary elections. Undecided voters in the CD-3 primary tend to be less conservative than those who have already made up their minds. Also, the Monmouth University Poll used a fairly broad likely voter model. Tightening the model actually works to MacArthur’s advantage and suggests that his margin could be even bigger in a low turnout race with, say, about 25,000 voters. For Lonegan to narrow the gap, he needs to continue to hammer away on Obamacare and work to get the turnout as high as possible on June 3rd.
A final element providing MacArthur momentum down the stretch is the support of outgoing Congressman Runyan. Additionally, MacArthur has not been shy about using his own funds to finance his campaign and has done so to the tune of over $2 million from his own pocket while Lonegan has blown away MacArthur with respect to donations. The fact that MacArthur is essentially self-financing his campaign has been something Lonegan among other areas has pinpointed in hopes to overtaking MacArthur on Tuesday.
Murray would add to his previous comments,
Obamacare does have the potential to be a problem for MacArthur and Lonegan is relentlessly hammering away at this issue in radio ads. With a majority of voters having no clear sense of where MacArthur stands, these attacks could have an impact in the final weeks. The question is whether it will be enough to overcome MacArthur’s support by the party apparatus. This race seems to have boiled down to a contest of organizational backing versus being on the wrong side of Obamacare.
As primary day nears, MacArthur and Lonegan will likely throw a few more punches as they fight to get the GOP nomination and likely face off against Belgard in the most contested race in the state this fall.