The moment Medford Mayor Chris Myers stepped into the third district congressional primary, most insiders picked himas the favorite Republican to continue retiring Rep. Jim Saxton’s legacy.
Even after Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly entered the GOP race with the support of his large Republican county’s powerful organization support , Myers managed to maintain the mantle of frontrunner, winning the coveted line in his native Burlington County, along with neighboring Camden County — which only has one town in the district, albeit a large one: Cherry Hill.
But fundraising totals reported by the Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday suggest a race much closer than initially expected.
According to the report, Myers has raised $334,786.77 and has $288,000 on hand. Meanwhile, Kelly has raised approximately $306,000, and has $281,000 on hand.
That, Kelly says, is exactly where he wants to be right now.
“We had goals to raise $100,000 in January, February and March, and we hit those goals each month,” he said. “I said from day one that we’re not in a fundraising contest… Anything over about $400,000 (for the primary) is greedy – that’s the way we looked at it. Mailing costs, TV costs, all the things you need to do to get out your message.”
Kelly even went as far to say that he doesn’t want extra funds to put aside for the general election if he prevails in the primary – that the last thing he wants is to lose a primary and have an extra $100,000 in his campaign account.
There’s a frustration on Kelly’s part that observers see this race as a contest between two powerful county Republican organizations – Burlington and Ocean.
“So many times people think it’s (Ocean County Republican Chairman) George Gilmore vs. a Burlington County chairman (Bill Layton),” he said. “I’m telling you that’s not the issue at all.”
Kelly insists that he’s at a distinct advantage because he’s represented roughly half the district as an Ocean County Freeholder since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, Chris Myers has held office only in his home town of Medford, which by itself accounts for a small portion of the district.
“I don’t need to wait for a pollster or advisor to tell me what I should say,” said Kelly. “That’s because I’ve represented this district for 16 years. I know the issues that are important to people, and the electorate and I think very much alike.”
But to Myers’s campaign spokesman Chris Russell, Kelly’s openness with the press is less an indication of how comfortable he is on the issues than it is one of poor campaign choices.
“People who run for Congress have staffs. Staffs help those people run for office and do what they need to do and focus on meeting voters and getting votes,” he told PolitickerNJ.com. “I’m happy to talk to you while Chris Myers is out there shaking hands. If Jack Kelly wants to sit on the phone all day, that’s his prerogative.”
While Kelly sees this as a contest between two men and not two organizations, Russell is less inclined to downplay that fight. And as far as Kelly’s record as a freeholder goes, Russell says that it can be used to his detriment as much as to his advantage.
“I would argue it’s also one of his biggest weaknesses when you take a look at his votes to increase taxes there and his votes to increase his salary there,” he said. “Jack Kelly’s time as freeholder has never really been examined because of the lack of competitive races there.”
There is a factor in this race, however, that neither candidate can control – Senate candidate Murray Sabrin’s alternate slate.
When the race began, both Burlington and Ocean Counties had long-shot rebel candidates running off the line as well: Justin M. Murphy from Burlington and Suzanne Penna from Ocean. Now the two have joined together to run under Sabrin’s line, with Murphy taking the congressional ballot spot and Penna running as a Freeholder.
That arrangement could work to Kelly’s advantage, since in a close race, even a negligible amount taken from Myers’s Burlington base could hurt his showing in a neck-and-neck race. But Sabrin hasn’t let Kelly off the hook, and last week announced the new slate in Toms River — directly across the street from the law offices of George Gilmore, the powerful local Republican chairman.
“I think that the impact will be negligible,” said Kelly.
Whatever the outcome of the primary race in June, the Republican winner will likely have a hard time competing with Democratic nominee-in-waiting John Adler, whose campaign has been a fundraising juggernaut thanks to the help of powerful Democratic power broker George Norcross and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. .
Kelly and Myers raised a combined $640,000 last quarter, which is more than the $529,000 Adler picked up by himself. But while the Republicans will have to spend that money battling each other, Adler can sit back and watch on top of a growing pile of cash.