WASHINGTON – Get ready for a Republican primary in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan in South Jersey.
GOP leaders in Burlington and Ocean counties are lining up behind Tom MacArthur, a former mayor from North Jersey and ex-insurance company executive, said Bill Layton, chairman of the Burlington County Republican party.
But Steve Lonegan, a conservative firebrand who last year ran for Senate (and is also an ex-mayor from the other end of the state), said Tuesday he's undeterred and will run anyway.
"It means I'll have a primary," Lonegan said Tuesday. "This is going to be a poster child nationally for the liberal wing of the Republican party trying to force out a conservative, so let's have it out."
Toms River Councilman Mo Hill has also said he plans to keep fighting for the Ocean County endorsement, though Layton said MacArthur has enough votes in both counties to secure organization support.
Layton said he expects Burlington Republicans to formally endorse MacArthur at a convention Saturday and the Ocean GOP to follow suit next week. MacArthur, the former mayor of Randolph, has won endorsements from Republican screening committees in both counties.
"Everything looks like a go for MacArthur," Layton said Tuesday. "I don't see any reason why Tom MacArthur won't have both the Ocean and Burlington county lines."
Ocean County Republican chairman George Gilmore stopped short of saying MacArthur would win, but in a telephone interview stressed the importance of campaign money in a hotly-contested district that could draw national attention. MacArthur is a millionaire from his days in the insurance business.
In a district where Republicans have dominated for decades, the Ocean and Burlington organizations are trying to avoid the kind of intra-party fight that cost the GOP its only loss there in recent memory, when a bloody primary helped Democrats to a 2008 win.
That result showed that despite Republicans' long success, the district is within Democrats' reach: President Obama won it in 2008 and 2012.
"The Third District is one of the most competitive in the country. Republicans need to nominate a conservative who can win in the fall and keep this seat in Republican hands – and that candidate is without question Tom MacArthur," said Chris Russell, a MacArthur campaign consultant.
Layton said county leaders see MacArthur as a candidate who impressed screeners with his grasp of the issues and ability to raise money. "They also didn't see him as an extremist," Layton added in a thinly-veiled shot at Lonegan.
Lonegan has long enjoyed running as an outsider and plans to do so again, burnishing his conservative credentials in a moderate district.
"It's pretty much like the Burlington and Ocean County bosses stacking the deck," Lonegan said. "This is about the grassroots and the voters."
Lonegan, according to the Asbury Park Press, has previously said he would not run without the Ocean County organization's backing. But Tuesday he said, "I said if there was a fair and open process I'd prefer not to run. But there's not a fair and open process."
He added, "that's what primaries are for."
Lonegan, running with party backing last year, said he won 54.5 percent of the votes in the district when he ran against Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.). He has also twice run for governor, losing both times in GOP primaries to more moderate candidates.
Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, and MacArthur both moved to Ocean County to live in the district shortly after Runyan, a Republican, announced that he would not seek re-election this year.
Democrats have lined up behind Burlington County freeholder Aimee Belgard. In a statement Tuesday she said she is "talking to voters and discussing how to create jobs, strengthen the middle class, and ensure that Sandy relief aid is getting where it needs to go."