The last time I was at the Elks Lodge of Toms River, NJ, was during a comic book convention 25 years ago. (It's where I bought Amazing Spider-Man #129, in which the Punisher makes his first appearance. I'm told it's actually worth something today.) Last Sunday night I found myself back at the lodge—which pretty much looks the same—but this time to see Republican candidate (and former Eagles offensive lineman) Jon Runyan as well as the governor himself, Chris Christie. With 50 to 60 protesters outside and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 supporters inside, the atmosphere was intense.
"You ever see anything like this?" Frank Luna asks me. The 27-year-old gum-chewing political operator with a buzz cut has a tense look in his eyes. Even before the doors were officially opened at 7:15, he says, the seats were all filled. Luna, who goes "wherever the governor wants me to go," scans the room, making sure the governor's visit comes off without a hitch—such as an infiltrating heckler. "I hope no one throws his shoe at him," said Virginia, a local senior citizen.
It's doubtful these protesters would do such a thing. But they would like to get inside—one of the more vocal demonstrators asks, "Isn't there even one member of the Elks club here? Can't we just go in?" They can't since the event required registration. And so they stand at the curb, waiting for Christie to pull in, chanting slogans to the attendees and telling them to vote for first-term Democratic incumbent John Adler. I spoke to a few who insist they are not all part of some coordinated effort by the New Jersey Education Association, that they are all simply concerned citizens, and that they all aren't teachers. But judging by the signs they were holding up, it's fair to say a majority of them probably were. "Adler Understands Education" reads one. "No Bully Zone" says another. "Educate Your Kids" appears on yet another poster. The protesters were also eager to tie the governor to Michael Ritacco, an unsavory but prominent member of the community—the Toms River regional school superintendent is facing corruption charges. "Ritacco held a fundraiser for Christie before he became governor," one educator explained. "Why wasn't he investigated when Christie was the U.S. attorney?" demanded another.
But inside the mood was ebullient. Sure these supporters want to elect Jon Runyan—Ocean County is a traditional Republican stronghold—but they are also here to see the governor, whose popularity has risen in a state that's voted for Democrats in presidential elections since 1992. This county, in particular, has a strong affection for Christie—as a candidate, Christie had hoped Ocean County could deliver 50,000 votes his way. It gave him 71,000 votes.
Almost suddenly, the Republican candidate for the 3rd Congressional District arrives. Frankly he's hard to miss. Runyan stands at about 6-foot-7 and weighs at least 300 pounds. And though he no longer plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, Runyan is still a solid mass. He looks down on everyone in the room while shaking hands and smiling. But he doesn't say much and doesn't come across as an expressive, share-your-feelings kind of guy. He's more like the strong, silent type.
In fact, Runyan seems to have taken a page from Candidate Christie's playbook, as noted by Fred Barnes: "Christie was elected governor of New Jersey last year after giving voters no more than a glimpse of his plans for the state. The reason was simple. Had he laid out his sweeping agenda of spending and tax cuts, he’d have given Democrats an inviting target. They surely would have tried to scare voters away from Christie, and it might have worked. Instead he concentrated on Democratic governor Jon Corzine as the main issue—and won."
I ask Runyan why the race is so close considering before Adler, the district had voted for Republican Jim Saxton continuously since 1992. He said that even though his opponent is still in his first term, he already had incumbent advantages (including fundraising that has far exceeded Runyan's efforts). Is he getting enough assistance from the RNC? He said he was satisfied but added, "we can always use more." And then I asked him about "Tea Party" candidate Peter DeStefano who, as Jonathan V. Last noted (citing the Courier-Post), isn't a Tea Party candidate at all but rather a creation by opponents to split conservatives' votes. Runyan brushes it off, calling the stunt a "desperate effort." And when I note that the race is a toss-up at the moment, he simply gives me an intense stare (I imagine the kind he's used against his NFL opponents) and says, "We'll see."
Runyan's speech is reminiscent of the captain of the football team running for class president: "It's time for a lot of honest people to put their foot down and to take control of this country, give it back to the people that work their tails off to make a living. We all know we can't do it alone. And as a team, the sky's the limit. With the intensity of this room, it's not going to be a problem. One step at a time, one minute at a time.... It's not going to be easy, but we're fighting. We're gonna kick some tail, and we're gonna have a heck of a party on November 2." Wolverines Rule!
All kidding aside, the lack of rhetorical flourish is a breath of fresh air. Again, he is taking a page out of the Christie playbook of plainspokenness—the polar opposite of Barack Obama. And yet Christie's tough talk can bring a reaction as strong as Obama's speeches on the campaign trail. Even before he says a single word, the governor receives rousing applause while the DJ plays Springsteen's "Glory Days."
Everyone in the room knew Christie had arrived because the protesters outside were suddenly screaming. The governor is accustomed to this and, in fact, it gives him fodder for his nearly 20-minute-long speech:
[Jon Runyan] is running against a guy who wants to make his entire life about putting forward those interests of the special interests rather than of all of you. You can see it tonight. What are they reduced to? To send a whole bunch of knuckleheads outside. [The crowd roars.] You know, I come in, they're yelling and screaming, "We are not the problem! We are not the problem!" Listen, here's the thing. That is the kind of leadership you get with John Adler.
Christie was just getting started:
The question is clear. You can boil it down to this for your friends, some of whom may still be on the fence.... You say to them, "You vote for John Adler, you vote for that, outside [he points to the parking lot], the special interests first, the me-first crowd that says, 'Pay me my raise first, pay me my free health insurance first, pay me my pension first, and if there's anything left for the people of New Jersey they can have the crumbs that are left.' That's the pay me first crowd standing outside. Or you can vote for someone like Jon Runyan...." That's the difference: The selfish me-first crowd for John Adler or the shared sacrifice team, all-for-one, one-for-all crowd that is being led by Jon Runyan. I know who I'm with. I'm with Jon Runyan....
The crowd erupts. Runyan is smiling. And the tide is turning. Last week's Richard Stockton College/Zogby poll of likely voters in the district showed Runyan leading Adler 40 percent to 37 percent. While technically within the margin of error, Runyan gained 10 additional percentage points over the past month. DeStefano, the "Tea Party" candidate is garnering less than 5 percent, indicating either indifference or a negative effect on Adler.
To be sure, the Democratic congressman has distanced himself from the mess and insists he knows nothing about it. When I mentioned this to Chris Smith, who represents the neighboring 4th Congressional District, he scoffed. "C'mon. All of his staff were part of it. They were in a room. You know, the CIA loves to have plausible deniability when everybody in the CIA knows they knew. Where are the firings of all the people if [Adler] didn't know about it? That's dirty pool. And hopefully the people in the 3rd District have no tolerance for dirty pool."
The problem for Adler is, assuming the stunt was pulled without his knowledge, voters will end up taking out their frustrations on him. In fact, two new polls from yesterday indicate the race is tighter than ever. A Rutgers-Eagleton Institute poll shows both candidates at 44 percent. But the Monmouth University poll has Runyan in the lead, 48 percent to 43 percent. Even worse for Adler, as PolitickerNJ explains in the latter poll, "Runyan has a 50% to 37% advantage among independents, a bloc Adler claimed with a 43% to 32% edge last month. The poll also shows that Runyan has widened his lead in the Ocean County portion of the district to 54% to 37%, and 'nearly evened the playing field in Burlington County and Cherry Hill – trailing Adler there by just 3 points, 44% to 47%.'" One pollster, who asked to remain nameless, predicts Runyan will squeeze out a win because the momentum has shifted and the undecideds are breaking towards him.
This is not to say Adler is out. "He's got great turnout in the Democratic strongholds of Camden and Burlington County," says Thomas Kelaher, the mayor of Toms River. "The key will be for Ocean County to come out and vote for Runyan." Indeed, as Sharon Schulman, executive director of the Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton College, told me, "the most likely voters in our poll are coming from Ocean County. Christie is enormously popular there. And if he's got any coattails..."
Once the event ended, volunteers were quickly stacking chairs, collecting signs, and cleaning up trash. Things had gone off without a hitch and Frank Luna was looking pleased. In fact he was still shaking his head, marveling at the turnout and intensity. "Pure luck," he says of how he ended up working for the governor. He then headed off to Waretown for his first meal of the day.