There is perhaps only one accusation either of the two Republicans running for a central New Jersey congressional seat is certain not to sling: that his opponent is a carpetbagger.
That's because both Tom MacArthur and Steve Lonegan moved into the 3rd District to seek the seat after Republican incumbent Jon Runyan announced he wouldn't run again. It's the only congressional seat in the state that politicians and observers agree could be taken by either party.
The candidates, both former northern New Jersey mayors, describe themselves as conservative but differ over a lot: taxes, health care and federal Superstorm Sandy recovery aid. The race has been heated, with MacArthur bashing Lonegan for opposing federal disaster relief and Lonegan seizing on a report critical of business practices by the insurance company MacArthur used to run.
The district, which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs to the shore, is one of three in New Jersey where an incumbent congressman has made a surprise announcement in the last six months that he is not seeking re-election. All three have attracted deep slates of candidates for the June 3 primary.
In the 3rd, three Democrats have been running a quieter campaign so far. Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard has the support of the Democratic organizations in both Burlington and Ocean counties and the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Democrats Howard Kleinhendler and Bruce Todd are also running.
Lonegan, who entered the race weeks after losing a special U.S. Senate election to Democrat Cory Booker and declaring his days of running for office were over, has a network of conservative activists in the area from his time as one of the state's best-known anti-tax activists. The former New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity and mayor of the Bergen County town of Bogota is perhaps more popular in conservative Ocean County than anywhere else in the Democrat-leaning state.
He lost his U.S. Senate election to Booker by more than 10 percentage points statewide but won in the towns that make up the 3rd District by more than five points. While he has support in the area, the Republican organizations in both counties are supporting MacArthur.
Lonegan says he was planning to move to this part of the state anyway but decided to settle in Lavallette because of the election opportunity.
Lonegan favors a flat income tax system and a repeal of President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul. He got national attention as mayor when he tried to make English the official language of Bogota. He built a following statewide for helping derail a toll privatization plan and for leading successful campaigns against ballot measures to raise the state sales tax, fund stem-cell research and pay to preserve open space.
He says MacArthur is not conservative enough because he wants to replace _ not repeal _ the health care law and doesn't believe it's wrong to have a progressive income tax structure.
"This is sort of like the liberal Republicans think they can run big government better than the other guys," he said last month.
MacArthur, a former mayor of Randolph in Morris County who ran an insurance company, said he wants a flatter income tax system with a smaller difference in tax rate between lower and higher earners and a health insurance system in which insurance companies fund an "insurer of last resort" for those who cannot get coverage otherwise.
"Don't force government health care on 290 million so 30 million can get covered," he said.
MacArthur, who has put $2 million of his own money into the campaign, said he had been spending about half his time at his home in Barnegat Light, which is near but not in the 3rd District, and was planning to move to Ocean County permanently. MacArthur said that decision was speeded by Runyan's decision. He now lives in Toms River and said he maintains a home in Randolph so his daughter, a high school junior, can graduate there.
MacArthur said he initially tried to run a positive campaign but felt he had to defend himself against Lonegan's criticism.
He's added plenty of his own, including blasting Lonegan for calling federal disaster aid "a taxpayer rip-off" and for lobbying against funding after Superstorm Sandy. Lonegan had said he supports storm victims but not the aid package, which he contended wouldn't help everyone affected by Sandy.
Last week, Lonegan tweeted a link to a story by the UK's The Daily Mail about legal settlements made by MacArthur's former company, York Risk Services Group, over underpayments for natural disaster claims. MacArthur's campaign manager said Lonegan was using the article "to destroy the Burlington and Ocean Republican parties for his own self-interest."