Jack Kelly and Chris Myers, the two leading candidates for the Republicans’ third district congressional nomination, have both indicated that they plan to keep their primary contest gentlemanly despite strong pushes from each of their counties’ Republican organizations.
“What you don’t want to turn this into is us against them,” Kelly, an Ocean County Freeholder, told PolitickerNJ.com in November. “We need to assure them that the needs of the district come first. Which one of us becomes a successful candidate comes second.”
But are the candidates merely paying lip service to civility this early in the race, or will they actually be able to live up to the idea?
If the 1984 primary race for the seat is any indication — the last time there was a competitive primary in the district and Burlington and Ocean Counties went head-to-head – then yes, the contest may very well remain civil.
“We had a gentleman’s primary,” said retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, who went on to narrowly win that primary and then serve 12 consecutive terms in the House. “We debated the issues. Ronald Reagan was a theme of the campaign. He was very popular at the time.”
Back then, it was called the 13th district, and the death of Rep. Edwin B. Forsythe left the seat vacant. Three Republicans ran to replace him: Saxton, then a 41-year-old State Senator; Ocean County Clerk M. Dean Haines, then 31; and Assemblyman John Rocco, at the time a 47-year-old former mayor of Cherry Hill.
The 13th district was similar to today’s third district, comprised of three counties stretching from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean and Burlington counties competed for dominance, with Burlington holding a slight edge in voter registration. Camden County made up a small part of the district then, but more significant than today, with Cherry Hill, Haddonfield and Merchantville all included.
Now Ocean County has a slight Republican registration advantage over Burlington, and Camden County’s portion of the district has been reduced to one town: Cherry Hill.
Just like today, Ocean County Republicans saw 1984 as a chance to finally get a congressman who called their county home – something that has never happened and remained elusive to them until today. Even Saxton, a Burlington County native, attempted to help them by calling former State Sen. Len Connors to try to recruit his son, State Sen. Chris Connors, to run for the seat. (Connors declined, and his father is now Kelly’s campaign manager).
Dean Haines, who’s since moved down to Florida and runs a company that manages condominiums, also remembers a civil primary. At the time, he referred to his primary bid as the “People Express campaign,” analogizing it to a long since out of business airline that provided low cost air travel. And one of his campaign aides was Jack Kelly, who he graduated high school with.
“We never went negative, just talked about how we would service the district and what we thought the issues were, whether it was protecting the pinelands or supporting the military,” said Haines, who’s now 55. “Jim Saxton was very effective in his section of the district in his part, Rocco was effective in his part.”
Haines and Saxton said that the issues at play in 1984 were, for the most part, the same issues the district faces today: the environment, veterans’ concerns and the economy.
“I remember the Democrats’ accused the Republicans of wanting to do away with Social Security. That never goes away,” said Saxton.
And just like in 1984, the two men find themselves supporting different candidates this time around. Saxton has officially endorsed Myers, and although he doesn’t live in Ocean County anymore, Haines would like to see its candidate get the nod.
Jeff Land, who managed John Rocco’s campaign, also remembered the race as civil
“It was kind of the last of the gentlemanly races. I actually hope we get to have it again like that,” said Jeff Land, who managed John Rocco’s campaign in 1984.
But Land said that his campaign did launch one negative attack in the race. Saxton, who lived outside of the district in Bordentown during the primary contest, had pledged to move into the district if he won the primary. But Rocco put out a radio ad anyway making light of the fact that it would illegal for Saxton to vote for himself.
“As far as issues, all three were pro-life and pro-Ronald Reagan,” said Land. “As a matter of fact, Jim Saxton went out of the way at that time to sell his conservative credentials of course later on became more moderate.”
The results of that election were close, with Saxton edging out Haines by 1,188 votes, with Rocco in a distant third place. And, as could happen this time around, Camden County played a pivotal role.
Although Rocco was from Camden County, a spat between him and then-state Sen. Lee Laskin resulted in Saxton getting the county’s line from then- Republican Chairman George Geist. The helped Saxton narrowly defeat Haines(As a State Senator, Saxton also made inroads in Ocean County’s Manchester Township, a former part of the district that he represented in the legislature).
Rocco’s candidacy, however, may have helped out Haines to begin with, since the expanse of Burlington County sits between Camden and Ocean. Had Rocco not been there to split the county’s vote, then Haines, virtually unknown in Cherry Hill, then Saxton would have likely taken the vast majority of votes.
Similarly, although Camden County makes up a smaller part of the district today, it could play a decisive role in this year’s primary. And again, it will probably help the Burlington County candidate.
Yesterday, Camden County Republican Chairman Rick DiMichele and the Cherry Hill County Committee members endorsed Myers for the seat, which gives him the line in a town with 5,900 registered Republicans.
“It’s not going to hurt (Myers),” said Kelly. “The county line is the county line, but I have not given up in Cherry Hill. We’re still going to campaign and campaign hard.”
Although Saxton has picked a horse in the race, he offered one piece of advice to both candidates: focus on veterans’ issues (something that may intrinsically help Myers, a decorated Gulf War veteran and defense company executive).
“If you take the 70,000 veterans and add a number that I would estimate between 35 and 50,000 people associated with the military, it’s a huge issue.”