The race to succeed U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan when he retires has turned into an all-out slugfest on the GOP side ahead of next month’s party primary.
The contest to represent the 3rd District, a toss-up district that covers large portions of Burlington and Ocean counties, has drawn two contenders — some say carpetbaggers — from North Jersey: conservative spitfire and recent U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan and former insurance executive Tom MacArthur, who has been endorsed by Runyan and local GOP organizations.
The two men have gone after each other with fervor.
Lonegan claims MacArthur is a left-leaning supporter of government-run health insurance and has sought to tie him to lawsuits filed by storm victims against his former company.
“This is a clear, line-in-the-sand choice for primary voters between a liberal and a conservative,” Lonegan said in an interview. “On every one of the major issues down the line he’s a liberal, period.”
MacArthur, meanwhile, said Bogota had serious financial problems when Lonegan served as mayor there, accused him of purposely lying about MacArthur’s background, and argued that he would lose a general election fight because of his extreme positions and style. MacArthur’s campaign has filed a defamation suit against Lonegan over the insurance firm allegations.
“He’s a lot of hot air, but that doesn’t mean he can govern effectively as a conservative,” MacArthur said. “He’s not electable. If he were to face a Democrat, the seat would go to the Democrat.”
The race heated up even further in the last week following the release of a Monmouth University poll showing MacArthur leading by 46 percent to 35 percent, with 20 percent undecided.
Lonegan responded with a flurry of attacks, putting out a list of complaints and lawsuits against MacArthur’s former company, York Risk Services Group, and criticizing him for naming Lonegan campaign staffers in the defamation suit.
Both men tout their experience maintaining the fiscal health of towns where they served as mayor, while saying the other raised taxes. MacArthur, 53, was mayor of Randolph in Morris County for a year. Lonegan, 58, led Bogota in Bergen County for 12 years.
Congressmen must live in their districts once elected; Lonegan recently moved to Lavallette and MacArthur has purchased a home in Toms River.
Lonegan said his history of supporting conservative causes will appeal to voters. He opposed a proposed state sales-tax increase, fought a toll-hike plan, advocated for New Jersey’s withdrawal from a regional effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and urged Gov. Christie not to create a state health-insurance exchange, he said.
“I have a proven track record of fighting for the voters of New Jersey and winning,” he said.
MacArthur’s campaign has focused on his experience building York Risk Services Group into a large company. He said he would work on spurring job growth, overturning the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, and protecting Social Security and Medicare. He would also support superstorm Sandy recovery efforts and funding for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, he said.
“First and foremost is growing the economy and fostering federal policies that spur job creation,” he said. “It’s what I understand the best after 30 years in the private sector.”
Polls now favors MacArthur
Initially Lonegan had much stronger name recognition than MacArthur, having run once for Senate and twice for governor. An independent poll of Republican voters in March found he had the support of 41 percent while MacArthur had the support of just 2 percent of Republican voters.
“Steve Lonegan is an accomplished campaigner, is well-known, has high name recognition, and has a tremendous network of supporters as the de facto leader of the tea party movement in New Jersey,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He also has a national network of financial supporters. So even running off the (Republican ballot) line he has a very intriguing chance.”
But MacArthur rolled out TV commercials to introduce himself to voters and was endorsed by a wide swath of Republican officials and organizations. His campaign released an internal poll earlier this month that said 37 percent of primary voters supported him, with Lonegan favored by 28 percent, and the Monmouth poll last week confirmed his lead.
MacArthur’s advantages include endorsements from Runyan, former 3rd District congressman Jim Saxton, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and GOP organizations in Burlington and Ocean counties, as well as a personal fortune from selling his company. He loaned his campaign $2 million and had just $1,075 in individual contributions through the end of March.
“In that district you need to buy New York and Philadelphia TV, so it’s very expensive,” Dworkin said. “Whoever wins the Republican nomination is not only going to face a divided party, but is going to have less money in the bank than they might want in June.”
MacArthur had $1.75 million cash on hand as of March 31 and had spent $252,000, half of it on media.
Two of MacArthur’s recent TV spots attacked Lonegan. One said he supported cuts in military spending that could threaten the Joint Base, while the other criticized Lonegan for making “callous remarks” toward Sandy victims and opposing a Sandy aid package.
Lonegan’s campaign says he criticized the Sandy legislation because it was not balanced by spending cuts elsewhere and contained millions of dollars in earmarks for states not affected by the hurricane. He has lambasted the Department of Defense over wasteful spending, but said he supports funding the Joint Base and other military facilities.
As of March 31, Lonegan had raised just over $400,000, lending himself $100,000 and receiving numerous individual donations, include $2,000 from Todd Christie, the governor’s brother. The campaign had $172,000 cash on hand and about $161,000 in debt.
Lonegan’s spending and debt included more than $138,000 for fundraising expenses and $32,000 for advertising.
A television ad he put out this week showed a California couple whose home burned down in a wildfire criticizing MacArthur’s company for allegedly trying to reduce their insurance payment. Another ad called MacArthur a tax-raising liberal, putting his image next to President Obama’s and saying MacArthur had supported building affordable housing in Randolph.
Digging up dirt
Lonegan has highlighted lawsuits filed against York over the 2008 California fire, Hurricane Ike and other disasters, as well as a settlement York made with the state of California over claims handling, in an effort to cast doubt on his rival’s commitment to helping storm victims.
“In a race where so many people in our district have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy and can’t collect and are fighting insurance companies, this is the guy they are fighting every step of the way,” Lonegan said.
MacArthur rejected the criticism, saying York helped process over a million claims during his tenure, some of which were inevitably disputed. He said three lawsuits Lonegan focused on were either settled or dismissed.
York was also separately sued by Phoenix firefighters over denied workers’ compensation claims. MacArthur said the claims involve a company that York acquired after he left, and his campaign filed suit against Lonegan’s campaign for saying MacArthur had been sued for “insurance fraud.”
The Lonegan campaign has promoted an article about the lawsuits in The Daily Mail, an online British tabloid. MacArthur’s campaign charged that Lonegan’s campaign had planted the article, as the author had previously co-written articles with a Lonegan opposition researcher.
For its part, MacArthur’s campaign points to a lawsuit that alleges Lonegan committed a campaign law violation during his 2009 gubernatorial bid. Lonegan received $2.7 million in government campaign funding after having recently worked for the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which plaintiff William Brennan alleges constituted a violation.
Brennan and Lonegan have tangled before, with Lonegan unsuccessfully suing him for libel over an unrelated issue. Lonegan said the state Election Law Enforcement Commission looked into the campaign-finance violation claim and rejected it, and said Brennan has filed numerous lawsuits against other politicians.
A toss-up district
The 3rd District race is the latest of several in recent years that test the role of the state’s tea party movement. Lonegan won the endorsement of Libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul, the West Jersey Tea Party and other tea party groups.
MacArthur has the support of the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC and was designated a “Young Guns” candidate by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The fierce campaigning also reflects the state and national parties’ concern that the 3rd District is one of a few nationwide that could switch to Democratic representation, if voters reject Lonegan’s outspoken conservatism. The Democrats united early to support Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, who appears to have a clear path to her party’s nomination.
After Lonegan launched his candidacy on Ronald Reagan’s birthday, state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, a Burlington County Republican, pointedly rejected the comparison to the former president, saying Lonegan has been a disaster “due to a style that is angry and positions that are callous.”
“The chances for Belgard to win are I think improved if Lonegan wins the primary and more generally if the Republicans continue to spend huge amounts of money beating each other up,” Dworkin said.
Lonegan counters that it is MacArthur who is actually more vulnerable to Democrats’ attacks because he has not had to deal with close scrutiny before, whereas Lonegan has been repeatedly vetted during his runs for governor and Senate.
The district is the most competitive in the state based on party registration numbers. Democrat John Adler won the seat in 2009 but narrowly lost reelection to Runyan. In 2012 Runyan defeated Adler’s widow, Shelley Adler, by 9 percentage points, or about 27,000 votes.
In the same election, President Obama won the 3rd District with 52 percent of the vote, making it one of just 17 districts with Republican congressmen that favored the president. Democrats account for 27 percent of registered voters in the 3rd, Republicans 25 percent and unaffiliated voters 48 percent, according to the most recent state figures.
Overall, Burlington County leans Democratic and Ocean County leans Republican. In last year’s U.S. Senate race, Lonegan won more votes in Ocean County than the winner, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Dworkin noted that Sen. Booker will be on the ballot again this fall, which could draw more Democratic voters to the polls and help Belgard.
Despite their differences, Lonegan and MacArthur do have in common that they are both businessmen who went into local politics.
Lonegan started and ran a kitchen-cabinet company, and served as Bogota’s mayor for 12 years. He was later state director of Americans for Prosperity’s New Jersey chapter. He ran for a congressional seat in 1998, for governor in 2005 and 2009, and for Senate in 2012. He and his wife have two adult daughters.
MacArthur spent 28 years in the insurance industry, starting as an adjuster and ending as the chairman and CEO of York Risk Services Group, according to his campaign biography. He served on Randolph’s council from 2011 to 2014, including the final year as mayor. MacArthur and his wife have an adopted son and daughter. Another daughter, who had special needs, passed away.
The candidates’ websites are steveloneganforcongress.com and tmac4congress.com.