At their election night party in Mount Laurel, while Burlington County Democrats were ecstatically watching the best returns they've seen in recent memory roll in, local Democratic chairman Rick Perr followed newly minted Congressman-Elect John Adler's (D-Cherry Hill) victory speech with a joke that lent a sobering reminder to an otherwise heady atmosphere.
"Hey John, when does re-election start?" he said.
The answer: immediately.
After losing a seat that their party held for 124 years, national Republicans have stressed to local party leaders that they should start fielding potential challengers to Adler as soon as possible. Not that they needed to tell that to Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore and Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton, who head up the GOP in the two counties that dominate the 3rd Congressional District (Camden County has one town, Cherry Hill, in the district).
Adler, aware that he will likely face a tough reelection battle, has been holding frequent "Congress on your Corner" meetings and roundtable discussions across the district – appearances that will serve to improve name recognition and communicate that he's receptive to the needs of constituents.
Republicans say that, since they have to prepare for the gubernatorial and assembly races, they're far more concerned with this election cycle than the next one. Still, 2010 is on their minds.
"My guess is we'll be one of the top tiers next time around, and if you listen to [Republican National Committee Chairman] Michael Steele's rhetoric, we have to start winning more seats in the northeast if we're going to start regaining the majority," said Layton. "For them and for us, the come back starts now."
There is no clear favorite potential candidate for Republicans to rally around next year, but Layton and Gilmore already agree that they want to avoid a geography-based primary battle, as happened last year between Burlington County's Chris Myers, the eventual nominee, Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly, and former Tabernacle Township Committeeman Justin Murphy, who marketed himself as an independent alternative to the two machine-backed candidates. It was an ugly fight between Myers and Kelly, leaving in its wake bruised feelings and, for Myers, a depleted war chest for the general election, when he faced the best-funded open seat House candidate in the nation.
"We've got to take one step at a time. Obviously it's important, if it can be done, to avoid a Republican primary," said Gilmore. "Adler got to sit back and raise money while candidates from Burlington and Ocean were raising an almost equal amount and spending it against each other."
Gilmore said that all three county chairmen understand the importance of agreeing on one candidate instead of putting the might of their party organizations behind two rivals.
"There obviously will be communication between all three county chairs to try to find a way to pick a candidate that a will not create primary and will be able to do well in all three areas."
Gilmore and Layton did not want to speculate on specific challengers this early on, but both counties have deep Republican benches.
Burlington County Republicans do not discount the possibility of Myers making another run for it, and an insider close to him said he's mulling the prospect. Other names floated include Assemblywoman Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Evesham), former Freeholder Director Aubrey Fenton and state Sen. Phil Haines (R-Springfield), who actually lives in the 4th District (Federal law does not require candidates to live in the congressional district they're running in — only the same state by Election Day).
"I'm an open minded person, and I certainly would consider it. But I haven't had any meaningful, or really any discussions at all about it," said Haines. "There's that old saying, ‘you never say never,' and that's how I preface it."
The only out-of-the-box name that surfaces is John Culbertson, a wealthy investment firm executive from Moorestown who some Republicans see as a potential self-funding candidate. Calls to Culbertson's office today and Thursday were not returned.
State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), a moderate who consistently wins reelection by comfortable margins in an overwhelmingly Democratic legislative district, is an attractive candidate on paper. But the tense relationship between her and the wing of the Republican Party led by Layton and still influenced by his predecessor, former Chairman Glenn Paulsen, has gotten colder in recent months. If she runs, she won't likely have the support of those currently in control of the party.
Allen, like everyone else mentioned, is non-committal right now.
"My plate is politically pretty full at this moment. I don't think I would make a decision right now, and honestly it's not something that's really on my radar," she said.
As to whether her reformist tendencies that have led to differences with party leadership will make it hard for her to run, Allen said "We need to wait and see who's in charge of the party and where it's going."
Murphy, another reform Republican from Burlington County — who last year ran much a much stronger race than most observers expected, and mostly at the electoral expense of Kelly – has already announced that he plans to run again. His relationship with Burlington County Republican leaders has been on the mend, however, and party insiders raise the possibility of him running as the organization-backed candidate.
Murphy acknowledged as much today.
"Being a Bret Schundler Republican, he taught me that you build a bridge, not a wall," he said.
If the eventual nominee comes from Ocean County, it will likely only be after he or she has received Gilmore's blessing.
Jack Kelly, whose last campaign was damaged by charges of patronage from Myers, has already mentioned to Gilmore that he's considering making another run for it. But his current freeholder term will expire the same year, forcing him to choose which office he wants to run for.
"I would consider that, yes, but I have a real decision to make next year," he said.