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New Jersey Republicans Wrestle With Steve Lonegan

Runyan is retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Runyan is retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., might sound familiar: A tea party firebrand threatens to upend a GOP primary, meanwhile Democrats cleared the field for an all-but-anointed nominee.

But this is New Jersey, where machine politics trump national trends.

The tea party candidate is former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, the GOP’s nominee for the Senate special election last year who lost to Cory Booker by 11 points. Democrats have touted Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, who announced her candidacy for the seat in November.

Lonegan announced his House candidacy this month in The Newark Star-Ledger, infuriating operatives in the district. In other states, congressional candidates — especially Republicans — can successfully run as political outsiders. But New Jersey is different.

Local party leaders wield immense influence over the Garden State’s ballot alignment. County chairmen and committees give advantageous ballot placement to a preferred candidate in a designation known colloquially as “the line.”

It is nearly impossible for a New Jersey candidate to win a party nomination without the line, and local GOP leaders have already signaled that Lonegan is not their man.

“Lonegan is probably the Democrats’ best chance to win the seat,” Burlington County GOP Chairman Bill Layton said in a phone interview last week with Roll Call.

Lonegan plans to move from his home in the northern part of the Garden State to the 3rd District, which is east of Philadelphia. But Layton argued Lonegan’s relocation isn’t the problem — it’s his opposition to government funds for Hurricane Sandy relief and his positions on Medicare.

The 3rd District includes a large section of the Jersey Shore, which felt the brunt of the 2012 hurricane. The seat also has a consequential elderly voting population.

One of Lonegan’s best assets is his name identification. He has run statewide in three different GOP primaries over the last decade.

It’s one reason why local Republicans are determined to unify behind a single candidate. The district is home to two dominant, competing counties, Burlington and Ocean, that have battled over candidates before.

In 2008, the counties waged political war with each other over the district’s primary to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Saxton. Local Republicans blame that circumstance, along with a favorable year for Democrats in 2008, for losing the seat to the late Democratic Rep. John Adler.

As a result, Republicans said there’s a good-faith effort to avoid a divisive county-on-county feud this time around.

“We have a pact that we’re gong to do everything in our power to select one candidate,” Layton said of his Ocean County counterpart, George R. Gilmore. Layton added that they intend to settle on a candidate in February.

State and national Republicans named the following contenders as potential candidates to succeed Runyan:

  • Evesham Mayor Randy Brown
  • Former Burlington County Freeholder Bruce Garganio
  • Toms River Councilman-At-Large Maurice “Mo” Hill
  • Former Randolph Mayor Tom MacArthur. (Randolph is in northern New Jersey, but MacArthur owns property in Ocean County and has the capacity to fund his own campaign — a candidate quality that’s proven desirable to national Republicans this cycle.)
  • State Assemblyman David Wolfe

The primary will take place on June 3. The race is rated Tossup by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

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