The Magazine

On Eagle’s Wings

A local celebrity aims to oust a freshman Democrat in New Jersey.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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His lunch-pail approach to football made him a local hero. Over nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was as much of a star as a lineman can be. Which in the Philadelphia area is actually quite a lot. In a town hostile to golden boys, Runyan piled up the kind of achievements that Philly fans care about: He started 213 consecutive games and amassed more playoff appearances than any other concurrent player in the league, including stars such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In 2007, he played most of the season with a tailbone injury so painful that he couldn’t sit during crosscountry flights. Even so, he finished that season without committing a single penalty. And Runyan was no choir boy. In 2006, Sports Illustrated polled 361 NFL players, asking them to name the dirtiest player in the league. Runyan finished second. For Eagles fans this was a feature not a bug.

The GOP establishment is lining up behind Runyan. Last week the other major candidate withdrew from the primary race, saying that Runyan had the best chance to beat Adler. Runyan is likely to face only a token challenge from maverick Republican Justin Murphy in the June primary. From there he’ll have a five-month sprint to his showdown with Adler.

The fundamentals of the race are as favorable as any Republican will see in New Jersey, and Runyan adds name-recognition, outsider status, and an ability to self-finance to the equation. Still, November is a long way off. State party chair Jay Webber says that while he expects the race to be extremely competitive, “You’ve got to respect incumbency and you’ve got to respect Adler’s financial ability.” Matt Friedman, who covers the 3rd District for the nonpartisan website, cautions, “I would not underestimate [Adler]. He’s tacked so far to the right in his freshman term that he’s really a centrist. .  .  . But he’s in trouble. He’s definitely in trouble.” Charlie Cook has downgraded the race from likely Democratic hold to leans Democrat, and that was before Runyan emerged as the almost-certain nominee.

The main question is what kind of candidate Runyan will be. He is not a commanding presence in the mold of Steve Largent or Heath Shuler. The politician he resembles most is another New Jersayan seemingly without artifice: Chris Christie. Like the newly elected governor, Runyan is not a culture warrior and his conservatism seems largely pragmatic. The issues he cares about most are taxes and government expansion. “The way government is growing and spending,” he says, “I don’t believe that’s the way you’re going to fix our problems.” Asked what political figure he admires, he in fact names Christie.

As important as what Runyan is, however, is what he isn’t. He isn’t tied to any Republican legacy. He isn’t a polished political product. And he isn’t a career pol who’s spent his adult life angling for a gig in Washington. His campaign manager Chris Russell says, “I don’t think that Jon’s a guy, if he’s elected, that you’re going to see go down to Washington for 20 years.” Asked if he could see himself settling in D.C. for the long haul, Runyan explains, “Given the way the system is, you’re going to need some seniority to get things done, but by no means do I intend to spend my whole life down there. The system was intended for people to come from various different parts of life .  .  . and to not necessarily make a career out of it.”

Runyan and the 3rd District are a good reminder of the consequences of presidential failure. Seemingly safe districts come into play. And individuals who might be otherwise engaged—say, doing color commentary for the NFL—suddenly become formidable candidates.


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