New Jersey Rep. Jon Runyan is currently favored to win his first re-election race this fall in a district that was improved for the Republican by redistricting.
But the former professional football player faces a unique political circumstance in the 3rd district contest against former town Councilwoman and PTA President Shelley Adler (D). The memory of Adler’s late husband, Rep. John Adler (D), who lost a close race to Runyan in 2010, has the potential to disrupt the dynamics of the race.
New Jersey political observers said Runyan maintains the edge. But, they added, Adler has a path to victory, even if it is largely out of her control.
Adler’s sympathetic story places Runyan in the difficult position of needing to distinguish himself from his opponent without appearing to bully a widow. Because of this sensitivity, the race will likely hinge on economic concerns and President Barack Obama’s performance in the district, rather than personal attacks, observers said.
“Runyan is going to have an interesting tightrope to walk. He’s a big imposing guy,” said a state Democratic insider not affiliated with Adler. “It will have to be issue-based. There’s no possible way that they can go negative on her.”
Although Adler has been campaigning on issues such as Medicare and economic concerns, she has also inserted her husband into her campaign with little prompting. John Adler died in April 2011 at age 51 after undergoing emergency heart surgery for an infection.
“Well, I would have voted as my husband did, which was against [the Affordable Care Act],” she told a television host on her local PBS station when asked about her personal stance on the health care law.
Runyan campaign consultant Chris Russell said the Congressman recognizes the difficulty of the situation and has focused on Adler’s record as a member of the Cherry Hill Town Council. A recent campaign Web video criticizes her for voting to raise local property taxes, a contentious issue in the Garden State.
“There’s certainly a story there and we’re not interested in making [John Adler] a part of the campaign at all,” Russell said. “We’re focused on issues.”
The strategy of sticking to issues and records serves the incumbent well. A gaffe that makes Runyan appear insensitive would increase Adler’s chances and put Runyan on the defensive.
“The only thing we know, is [that] we don’t know,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Things can change. Either side can make a really big mistake.”
While the Runyan campaign seems to be restraining its criticism, money from outside groups such as super PACs could complicate his re-election efforts, according to prominent New Jersey Democratic attorney Donald Scarinci. An outside group that portrays Adler too harshly could build voter sympathy for her, even if Runyan’s campaign is not involved directly.
Regardless of super PAC involvement, a competitive race in the 3rd district will be expensive for both parties. The district’s location in the pricey Philadelphia and New York media markets increases the need for strong fundraising.
Adler collected about $311,000 in the first quarter, narrowly surpassing her opponent’s $296,000 raised.
The race has also drawn the attention of national political organizations. The National Republican Congressional Committee has included Runyan in its Patriot program, which protects vulnerable GOP incumbents. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed the race on its Red to Blue program in the top tier of seats the party hopes to pick up this cycle.
Both the DCCC and the NRCC have reserved more than $3.5 million for television time in the Philadelphia market, which includes the 3rd district. The committees can change the allocation of ad time as the election season progresses, but ad reservations are an early indication of each party’s most consequential races.
EMILY’s List, a prominent and well-funded political organization that supports Democratic women committed to abortion rights, has endorsed Adler.
Beyond a gaffe by Runyan or his supporters, observers said high turnout for the re-election efforts of Obama and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) could provide an alternate path to victory for Adler. Obama and Menendez are expected to win easily in the state. A substantial margin of victory could boost Adler, who will appear lower on the ballot.
The most significant changes to the race after redistricting this year were the removal of Cherry Hill, a town that has voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the past, and the addition of the GOP-dominated community of Brick. The district also gained a number of smaller towns that typically vote Democratic, but those areas are not as heavily populated as Brick and Cherry Hill.
Observers described Adler as both energetic and hard-working in her efforts to unseat Runyan. But Democratic and Republican insiders alike said that ultimately the fate of the race may be out of her hands.
“She’s been a pretty aggressive campaigner and fundraiser, [but] it’s still leaning Republican,” Scarinci said. “It’s his to lose. It’s absolutely his to lose.”