Jon Runyan is no-nonsense. Just what you would expect of a former NFL offensive lineman. When he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000, he didn’t take up the celebrity life. He bought a 23-acre farm in nearby Mount Laurel, New Jersey. When a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter came calling and asked him what he planned to do with the cows on his land, Runyan replied: “I’m going to raise them as beef cows and have them slaughtered.”
Runyan and his wife, Loretta, have three children. They attend a local Quaker school where Loretta became friendly with another mother, Dawn Addiego, a Republican state assembly-woman. Last November, Addiego asked Loretta if she thought Runyan might be interested in running for Congress from Jersey’s 3rd District. Loretta said she’d pass the idea on to her husband, which is how Jon Runyan, 36 and only recently retired from professional football, comes to be the GOP’s best chance for a congressional pickup in New Jersey.
New Jersey’s 3rd District is traditionally Republican, but has been competitive in recent years. Al Gore took the district 54 to 43 in 2000; George W. Bush edged John Kerry 51-49. In 2008, Barack Obama took the 3rd by 5 percentage points, far behind the 15-point margin by which he carried the state as a whole. With Republican Jim Saxton—who had been in Congress since 1984—retiring, the Obama wave was enough to carry Democrat John Adler to victory.
Adler had spent 20 years climbing the ladder of South Jersey politics, first as a town councilman, then with a failed run at Saxton’s seat in 1990, and finally as a state senator. In 2008, the Harvard-educated, Cherry Hill lawyer outspent his Republican opponent nearly 3-to-1 and captured the vacant seat by about the same margin as Obama carried the district.
The 3rd District is the kind of marginal seat that can be vulnerable when times are bad for the party in power. That times are bad became clear in November’s gubernatorial election, when Republican Chris Christie carried the district by 20 points—a 25-point swing against the Democrats. Adler quickly tried to limit his vulnerability. While he voted with Obama on the stimulus and cap and trade, he defected on the health care vote after Christie won in November. Hoping to scare off a top-tier opponent, Adler raised $1.67 million in 2009, adding to his reputation as a fundraiser. (In 2008, he raised more money than any nonincumbent congressional candidate in the country.)
Runyan first publicly hinted that he might be interested in the race three days after the House voted on health care. Within days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) began shopping opposition research to the media, eventually placing a story in The Hill about Runyan not having voted in four elections between 2000 and 2008. In January, the morning after Runyan returned home from his final NFL game (he played a valedictory season with the San Diego Chargers), the Philadelphia Inquirer ran another DCCC dump, about tax deductions Runyan has taken on part of his property.
It was a pretty nasty introduction to politics—especially for a guy who hadn’t even secured the county parties’ endorsements for his run. The 6′7″, 330-pound Runyan took it in stride. “Everyone asks, ‘Are you prepared for this,’ ” he laughs. “But when you think about the environment I’ve lived in during the last 14 years, the sports world isn’t a very positive world in itself. You have to have a thick skin and you have to deal with a lot of people talking bad about you a lot of the time.”
The eldest of three children, Runyan grew up in Flint, Michigan, where his father worked as a machinist for GM for 30 years. A high school standout in both basketball and football, he was recruited to play hoops for Michigan State, but decided to take a football scholarship to the University of Michigan instead. After finishing his degree (in kinesiology) he was drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Oilers in 1996. Four years later, he signed with Philadelphia.
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 PolitickerNJ.com, 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.