U.S. Rep. John Adler denied allegations Friday that his campaign recruited a so-called sham candidate to siphon votes from Jon Runyan, his Republican challenger in the Third District.
Calling the freshman Democrat desperate, Runyan has accused Adler's campaign of putting up Peter DeStefano, a third-party candidate running under the moniker "NJ Tea Party." Analysts say that in such a close race, DeStefano could take enough votes from Runyan to cost him the election.
Citing unnamed sources, the Camden Courier-Post reported Friday that South Jersey Democrats recruited DeStefano as a spoiler and propped up his campaign by helping him circulate petitions.
Adler's campaign manager, Geoff Mackler, and Democratic operative Steve Ayscue were involved, according to the Courier-Post. Neither responded to requests for comment on Friday.
"I believe in my heart, my people have nothing to do with other candidates," Adler said in an interview Friday morning.
"John Adler represents everything that is wrong with politics in our country today," Runyan said at a news conference hours later, reading from a statement. "He is dishonest. He lacks principle."
Both men agreed on one thing: that the DeStefano story has become a distraction at a time when voters yearn to hear the candidates' stands on issues.
DeStefano responded angrily to his characterization by Republicans as a fake candidate. "This is a bunch of crap," the Mount Laurel resident said Friday.
"What are they going to do next, call me a warlock?" he asked in a reference to Christine O'Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware who has been chided for a statement that she dabbled in witchcraft as a high school student in Moorestown.
Local tea party groups have endorsed Runyan, the former Eagles tackle who is running for his first political office.
The Independence Hall Tea Party, a regional group, said it expected to stage a demonstration against DeStefano at a fundraising event he was to hold Friday night.
The West Jersey Tea Party plans to sue the Adler campaign and the state to have the congressional ballot "struck down and then reprinted, dropping the name of DeStefano," according to a statement from the group.
Adler won the Third District, which cuts through Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County, in 2008 thanks to a gradual change in voter demographics and a surge of support for presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Last year, however, the district returned to its Republican roots and favored Christopher J. Christie for governor.
Independent polls show a tight race, with support for DeStefano in the single digits.
"Theoretically, a tea party candidate should take [votes] from the Republican," said Sharon Schulman, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.
If the claim that Adler's people recruited DeStefano "turns out to be true," she noted, "I'm not sure which way it would go. It's still an 'unnamed sources' thing, so I'm still skeptical."
The race has become increasingly bitter. Last month, Adler's campaign dispatched a photographer to take pictures of Runyan's Mount Laurel home. Runyan's wife, Loretta, followed the photographer and told Evesham and Mount Laurel police that he had upset her daughter.
Since August, Adler's campaign has run ads that show Runyan's gated home and accuse him of passing the property off as a farm to score a $20,000 tax break. The same allegation - and pictures of Runyan's home - was made in brochures mailed by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
Adler said Friday that the photographer whose behavior Loretta Runyan objected to was no longer associated with his campaign.
Having him shoot more pictures "was overkill, because we had photos of Mr. Runyan's mansion where he doesn't pay taxes on time," Adler said.
Runyan grazes four donkeys on his property and cuts timber, which allows him to pay less than $500 in property taxes on 20 acres of land surrounding his home. He pays $57,000 in property tax on the five acres where his house sits. He is taking advantage of the farmland assessment program, which allows farmers to pay reduced taxes in an effort to preserve open space.
During the primary, in an effort to dismiss the issue, Runyan held a news conference and acknowledged that had been late in paying his property taxes multiple times.
Adler said Friday that he had noticed a sudden proliferation of Runyan campaign signs near the soccer fields where his son plays. The Runyan campaign declined to comment.