Dems name Runyan's House seat a top target

Aimee Belgard, the Burlington County freeholder running to replace Jon Runyan in a South Jersey district that includes parts of Burlington and Ocean counties.

WASHINGTON – The South Jersey Congressional seat held by U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) ranks among Democrats’ top targets as the party, once again, takes aim at Republican-held districts in the Philadelphia area.

Among the 19 top-tier challengers on Democrats’ “Red to Blue” list released Monday is Aimee Belgard, the Burlington County freeholder running to replace Runyan in a South Jersey district that includes parts of Burlington and Ocean counties. Runyan isn’t seeking re-election.

One notch down, Democrats named three others races in our area -- based in Chester County, Bucks County and a huge swath of South Jersey – on their list of 16 “emerging” races in which they hope to flip seats from Republican to Democratic control. Combined, four out of the 35 GOP seats rated most important to the Democrats’ Congressional campaign arm are in the Philly suburbs, according to the Democratic list.

“People from Burlington and Ocean counties have joined our grassroots campaign to end the partisan gridlock in Washington and stand up for our veterans, seniors and middle-class families,” Belgard said in a news release.

Republicans in the South Jersey district have yet to settle on a consensus candidate. Conservative candidate Steve Lonegan is running, but the Burlington and Ocean county GOP organizations are still trying to settle on a candidate they will back. The Ocean GOP held another screening session over the weekend, but PolitickerNJ reported that the struggle for organizational support could drag until a March 19 county convention.

UPDATE: Late Monday the Burlington County Republican screening committee announced that it is backing Tom MacArthur, a former Randolph mayor who has moved south to run for the seat. The full county GOP organization still has to weigh in, but the decision seems to put MacArthur in the lead when it comes to winning support from South Jersey Republican leaders.

While Democrats are optimistic about winning the district, the seat has been dominated by Republicans for decades (the one two-year exception was when Democrat John Adler held it in 2009 and 2010). Runyan and the GOP retained the seat even amid President Obama’s re-election win in 2012.

Democrats named William Hughes Jr. as an “emerging candidate” in his bid to oust longtime U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in a sprawling district that covers the most southern portion of New Jersey, including much of Gloucester County and a huge piece of the Shore. Hughes, though, faces a primary race against Dave Cole, an ex-Obama administration aide.

In Pennsylvania, the Chester County-based district of U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (who is retiring) and the Bucks County district of U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick were labeled “emerging districts.”

Those races both feature Democratic primaries without a strong favorite: Kevin Strouse against Shaughnessy Naughton in the Bucks race, and Manan Trivedi against Mike Parrish in the Chester seat.

Fitzpatrick is seeking re-election and Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello has GOP backing to replace Gerlach.

A Republican spokesman pointed out that despite Democrats' ambitions, only one seat in the Philadelphia area made their top tier of races.

"In three out of the four districts in the Philadelphia area the poor quality of Democratic candidates has sent those races plummeting down the board faster than Obamacare's approval ratings, said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the GOP's Congressional campaign arm.

Democrats have long taken aim at the moderate districts in the Philadelphia suburbs, though without much recent success. Every incumbent Republican won re-election in 2012, and Democrats are running this year without Obama to help them at the top of the ticket.

Still, Gerlach and Runyan’s retirements have presented open seats and all four districts are fairly evenly split.

Republicans are largely playing defense in the Philadelphia area. Democratic seats held by Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady are safe. Departures of fellow Democrats Allyson Schwartz (from Montgomery County) and Rob Andrews (of Camden County) have created open seats but both districts also lean heavily Democratic.

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