Republican Rep. Jon Runyan's surprise announcement Nov. 6 that he will not seek re-election, after serving only two terms, gives New Jersey Democrats an unexpected opportunity to gain a seat in the House in 2014.
Like the recent retirement of fellow two-term Republican Tim Griffin of Arkansas, Runyan's exodus after such a short time in office left jaws agape and started speculation that other junior Republican lawmakers in the House might make similar retirement announcements before Jan.1.
"As soon as I heard the news about Rep. Runyan, I changed my assessment of New Jersey's 3rd District from 'leaning Republican' or even 'safe Republican' to 'up for grabs,'" veteran GOP consultant Bill Pascoe, who managed former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler's two bids for governor of New Jersey, told Newsmax.
The Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Report, both of which monitor congressional races, also moved the 3rd District from "safe" or "likely" Republican to "tossup."
With a new open district giving Democrats a fresh opportunity to pick up the "magic 17" — the number of seats that would give them a House majority — there is sure to be major national involvement by the Democratic Party in the race for this South Jersey seat.
Having unseated Democrat Rep. John Adler in 2010, Runyan, a former pro football star, won re-election last fall over Adler's widow Shelley with 53.7 percent of the vote. That same year, both President Barack Obama and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez carried the district.
A sign of the hopes Democrats have of reclaiming the 3rd District was that within hours of Runyan's announcement, Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard declared for the seat with a blast at what she called "the reckless partisan brinkmanship" that brought about the recent government shutdown.
But there is no shortage of other Democrats eyeing the House race. State Assemblyman Herb Conaway —a physician, lawyer, and U.S. Air Force veteran — is seriously considering a congressional run. Shelley Adler also is reportedly considering another bid. All the Democratic hopefuls are considered from the left wing of their party.
Although Republicans in other districts are fractured and experiencing internecine warfare between "establishment" and "tea party" activists, this doesn't appear to be the case in New Jersey District 3. Newsmax sources said the party organizations in its counties are strong and probably will line up behind the choice of Republican leaders for Congress.
Early signs are that choice will be state Sen. Chris Connors of Ocean City. The son of and successor to veteran state Sen. Leonard Connors, Chris Connors, 57, is considered moderate-to-conservative: pro-life, highly rated by the National Rifle Association, and a proponent of state tax reform.
Connors is expected to make his decision on running soon.
Connors is considered more conservative than Runyan, who sponsored legislation to outlaw discrimination against gays in the workplace and voted to reopen the government during the 16-day shutdown.
But as the maneuvering begins to succeed Runyan, questions remain as to why, at 39 and having secured a grip on his district after two elections, Runyan would suddenly call it quits.
One longtime New Jersey Republican operative was inclined to take Runyan at his word, that he was for leaving for family reasons and not to read anything else into it.
"Remember, Jon played 14 seasons with the National Football League, including his best-known stint as an offensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles, and amassed considerable wealth," the operative told us.
"So, when he says he never intended to have a political career and wants to spend time with his three children – one of whom is going to play football at the University of Michigan – he can afford to say and do these things. I believe him."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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