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.”