Former Eagles lineman Jon Runyan posted the first victory of his political career Tuesday, holding off a feisty tea-party-backed challenger in the Republican primary in New Jersey's Third Congressional District.
In the fall, Runyan will face the better-funded freshman U.S. Rep. John Adler (D., N.J.) in what is expected to be one of the nation's most closely watched and expensive races.
Underscoring the importance of this race for Republicans, Gov. Christie went to Runyan's Mount Laurel strip-mall headquarters to share in the celebration Tuesday night.
"Make sure we send the right Jon to Washington, D.C., in November, not the wrong John," the governor said. "It's time to get rid of John Adler and time to bring common sense to Washington."
Runyan quipped: "This reminds me of a post-game speech that Coach [Andy] Reid would have: 'Take the night off, get back to work tomorrow.' "
Adler's campaign, which mostly ignored a marginal primary opponent, came out swinging Tuesday night.
"The last thing we need in Washington is another wealthy extremist trying to buy an election and continuing to ignore the struggles middle-class families and seniors face in these challenging times," Adler's campaign manager, Geoff Mackler, said in a statement.
Runyan, 36, of Mount Laurel, defeated former Tabernacle Councilman Justin Murphy on a day of low-turnout primary races ranging from Congress to town council.
Runyan and Adler are expected to fight bitterly over the next few months to represent the Third District, which runs through Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County.
Adler holds one of about 80 House seats that analysts say are in play in a year voters seem especially annoyed with incumbents. A dozen states held primaries Tuesday, with tea-party-backed candidates running hard in California, Maine, Georgia, and Nevada.
Locally, Republican voters picked through large fields in freeholder primaries in Camden and Gloucester Counties where party-backed candidates prevailed. In both counties, Democratic freeholder candidates ran uncontested, while in Evesham, voters decided their first partisan primary, with party-backed Mayor Randy Brown taking an easy victory.
But for many, the passion for the primary was focused on Congress.
Murphy voter Jane Walton, 65, of Mount Laurel, said: "I'm fed up with everything.
"This country is going down the tubes, and we have to take it upon ourselves to get out there and fix it," she said. "I pray to God every night, on my knees, that the political landscape changes."
Runyan voter and neighbor Randy Chatzidakis, 60, of Mount Laurel, said she was "glad he's never been in politics. People get to Washington, and they forget why they came."
Runyan came into the primary with a splash, drawing attention even when he announced he was just thinking about running.
A local celebrity, known recently for his role in the "chest-bump-worthy" McDonald's coffee commercial, Runyan has little political experience. His initial backers, the Burlington County Republicans, say that's a positive because he can present himself as a Washington outsider in a year when voters are angry with incumbents.
And in his victory speech, Runyan showed how he would try to use that to his advantage.
"People always question my experience in politics. Yes, I have no experience raising taxes over and over again. Yes, I have no experience increasing the debt," he said. "Do you really think the people who created these problems are going to be able to solve them?"
To that, his supporters - packed in a hot, tiny room with pizza boxes strewn about - shouted back, "No."
Murphy, 44, of Medford, showed that an upstart could be enough of a threat that the Republican establishment would want to swat him. Runyan spent money to mail literature to Republican voters questioning Murphy's tenure as a Tabernacle councilman.
Runyan's campaign made more than 20,000 phone calls to likely voters in the days running up to Tuesday.
After voting early Tuesday, Runyan manned the phones at his headquarters.
Murphy ran a bare-bones campaign aided by tea party and antiabortion groups, as well as dissident Ocean County Republicans.
Adler ignored the primary so he would not be forced to run to the left in an essentially Republican district, observed Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
"Even if it costs them 20 percent of the vote, they'll live with that to avoid engaging in a primary battle," Murray said.
Adler's opponent, Barry Bendar, 54, of Forked River, ran a one-issue campaign, saying he was upset by Adler's vote against President Obama's health-care package.
Still, voters turned out for Adler, 52, of Cherry Hill, with the Rev. Owen Griffiths, 50, of Mount Laurel, saying, "I would hate to see the Democrats lose the majority at this point."
Adler said he voted against the Obama health-care plan because he did not believe it did enough to lower health-care costs.
Runyan says Adler voted that way because he wanted to save his seat in a Republican-leaning district.
Though the district voted Adler into Congress in 2008, he was the first Democrat to win there since the 1860s. By 2009, the district returned to its Republican inclinations and chose Christie over the Democratic incumbent, Jon S. Corzine.
In nearby congressional races, voters in the First District, which runs along the Delaware River, will see a rematch between 10-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews and Republican Dale Glading, who runs a prison ministry. The two faced off in 2008, with Andrews taking a 3-1 victory.
Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, an eight-termer in the district that includes towns in Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland Counties, will run against Democratic nominee Gary Stein, who was unopposed in the primary.
And in the Fourth District, which cuts through towns in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties, 15-term Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Smith will face Democrat Howard Kleinhendler, who ran unopposed.