Former Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan plans to run for the U.S. House from South Jersey next year after finishing this football season with the San Diego Chargers.
The Mount Laurel resident, who signed with the Chargers on Tuesday, said he would run as a Republican in the Third District.
Runyan has not been active in public politics, and may face a challenge in a district where two Republican-heavy counties have battled for supremacy.
"Win or lose, these will be my final games as an NFL player," Runyan said in a statement released Tuesday night by Chris Russell, a prominent Burlington County Republican campaign adviser. "After the season is over, I plan to officially retire from football and pursue a campaign for the United States Congress."
Runyan, who will turn 36 tomorrow, will seek to represent a district that includes Cherry Hill and most of Burlington and Ocean Counties, stretching from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. Republicans held the seat for decades before Rep. John Adler won it last year with the help of a Democratic surge led by President Obama.
"I look forward to the end of my career on the field, and a spirited campaign against Congressman Adler in 2010," Runyan said in the statement.
Adler was with his family for the holiday and unavailable for an interview yesterday, according to a spokeswoman.
"Congressman Adler is going to continue to fight for middle-class families and a more accountable and efficient government. He is not thinking about partisan politics or next year's election," Jill Greco, his chief of staff, said in a statement.
National Republicans have targeted Adler from his first weeks in office, while Democrats have been girding for a fight to hang on to the historically Republican district.
Republicans in Runyan's home county, Burlington, were already eager to play up the potential contrasts between the massive lineman, who grew up in Flint, Mich., and Adler, a Cherry Hill resident who went to school in Haddonfield, graduated from Harvard Law, and spent 16 years in the Legislature before moving to Congress this year.
"People are tired of career politicians, which Congressman Adler certainly is, and they're looking for fresh faces," Russell said.
With his 13-year NFL career, it also seems Runyan would be in a position to fund much of his own campaign in an expensive media market.
Runyan got a split reaction from the Republican leaders in Burlington and Ocean Counties, where support is crucial for GOP candidates.
"I support him 100 percent," Burlington County Republican chairman Bill Layton said. "He's my first choice for Congress."
Russell said Runyan would be "a low-tax, small-government conservative" who would focus on the economy and jobs.
"He was looking for the next phase in his life where he could make a difference," Russell said, adding that Runyan "is committed to the race."
But Ocean County Republican chairman George Gilmore said that others were also interested in the seat and that all would be vetted.
"He says he's going to run for Congress, and that's certainly his prerogative, but that doesn't mean he's going to get the nomination," Gilmore said. "Nobody should be afraid to take our time and pick the best candidate possible. If that turns out to be Jon Runyan, great. But it may not turn out to be Jon Runyan."
In 2008, a bitter Republican primary between candidates from Burlington and Ocean left the winner, Medford's Chris Myers, bruised before the general-election contest with Adler. Burlington's James Saxton had held the seat for 24 years, and Ocean Republicans have been eager to see someone from their turf move to the House.
Gilmore said he recently had met with Runyan for 15 minutes, but knew little about him other than his football career, which included playing at the University of Michigan. He was with the Eagles from 2000 to 2008.
"He told me football was his first love," Gilmore said, adding that he told Runyan he couldn't play and run for office. "I would have concerns, in all honesty, that if he plays for San Diego - and San Diego likes him and offers him a contract for next year - that he plays football again next year."
Runyan's contract this year means he could play until Feb. 7, the date of the Super Bowl.
Burlington County voting records show Runyan registered as a Republican on Nov. 10, one day before word leaked out that the county's GOP leaders were encouraging him to run.
He registered to vote in Burlington in 2000, the year he began playing with the Eagles.
Between 2000 and 2008, Runyan voted in five general elections, skipping four.
He has not contributed money to political candidates, national and state records show.
"Jon Runyan can't even get himself to the polling place regularly. His failure to do so and participate in the democratic process over the past decade raise serious questions about whether he's even ready for public service, let alone qualified," said Shripal Shah, a regional spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Russell said that Runyan had voted in five of the last six general elections - including 2009, which is not yet included in county records - and that issues such as the economy and the war in Afghanistan would outweigh concerns about his participation in elections.
While Runyan would bring name recognition to the race, Adler, 50, is a veteran campaigner who was reelected to the state Senate four times.
On the two most significant pieces of legislation during his term so far, Adler voted for the federal stimulus package and against the health-care bill that the House passed.