Republicans Likely to Avert Disaster in New Jersey

Runyan is retiring from Congress, leaving behind a competitive race for his seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New Jersey Republicans are on track to get their preferred nominee through the primary in the state's most competitive House race, thanks to the local political machine and a deep-pocketed candidate.  

On Tuesday, Randolph Township Mayor Tom MacArthur, is expected to defeat a spirited challenge from a tea-party-aligned frequent candidate, Steve Lonegan. The stakes for this South Jersey open seat are high: The race is rated a Tossup  by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call, and the district includes the pricey Philadelphia media market.  

"Tom MacArthur is going to win this race because he is a strong conservative, a successful businessman and has the support of both county Republican organizations and more than 160 locally elected Republicans across the district," wrote Burlington County GOP Chairman William Layton in a Thursday email.

If things do not go exactly as Republicans plan on Tuesday's primary with MacAruther, GOP operatives fear they will blow the seat entirely. Democrats hope Lonegan will pull an upset, making the path to victory much easier for their de facto nominee, Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard.

Lonegan trailed his GOP primary opponent by double digits in recent public pollsTo be sure, he brings organizational and financial strengths to the primary fight that are atypical for a candidate running against the state and national establishment. Lonegan has raised $800,000 (including a $300,000 candidate loan), according to his pre-primary fundraising report. And he boasts name solid recognition in the district, thanks to his unsuccessful special election bid last fall against now-Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat.  

But this is New Jersey, possibly one of the most hostile environments in the country for anti-establishment campaigns.  

That's mostly due to the nature of the state's primary ballot. County political parties determine preferential ballot positioning for a candidate through their county party endorsements. The 3rd District’s two county parties, Burlington and Ocean, have waged war in the past over which candidate would be the party standard-bearer in the primary  

But this cycle, national operatives feared the Lonegan threat early in the spring. New Jersey Republicans intervened, and the two local county GOPs came together to back MacArthur early in the primary. Republicans were relieved.  

Meanwhile, Lonegan had threatened to recruit his own slate of downballot candidates to appear on the ballot with him — a strategy that would likely mitigate some of the MacArthur ballot advantage.  

“I’ll have my own line,” Lonegan said in a March interview .  

But it never happened. According to interviews with both counties’ clerk offices, Lonegan will only appear with a small handful of allied candidates. Lonegan's camp rejected recent polling and argued the premise MacArthur is more electable in November is flawed. Instead, Lonegan's camp noted his Senate bid performed better than Booker in this district.  

"I don’t understand it," a Lonegan source said. "I don’t know what it’s based upon. Steve Lonegan has proven that he can win against a very liberal Democrat."  

He also has endorsements from national Republican figures, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul and entrepreneur Steve Forbes.  

But there's another reason Republicans are confident about Tuesday: MacArthur’s financial strength. The former risk management company CEO largely self-funded his campaign with nearly $2 million in loans, per his latest fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission.  

Amid this campaign, Lonegan ran a searing ad attacking MacArthur's business record, with two Californians essentially calling MacArthur a liar. But MacArthur has a greater capacity to counter those attacks on television with positive advertising.  

Belgard spent the first stretch of this race with a cleared nomination field. She used that time to raise money and posted a $330,000 war chest. It's a strong sum, but it lags behind other top Democratic challengers in the country.  

Republicans suggest MacArthur, with his financial strengths, could pull this seat out of contention for Democrats. But the opposition showed no sign of backing off  Thursday, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it had reserved $1.3 million in television airtime  for the district.  

President Barack Obama carried the district in both of his presidential campaigns. But this seat has frustrated House Democrats. The late Rep. John Adler, a Democrat, won the seat in 2008, but the party came up short in 2010 and 2012. New Jersey's 3rd District fell off the map by October, when parties triage which races merit funding,  because of the high advertising costs in Philadelphia and New York City.  

Democrats could have waited to see who Republicans nominated before making those reservations. Instead, they went ahead and publicized these strategic decisions ahead of Election Day. The DCCC could cancel or move the reservation to other candidates in the region.  

But for now, no matter who the nominee is, the party is making a big bet on South Jersey.