In NJ, Adler Campaign Reportedly Recruited Tea Party Candidate as Stalking Horse

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Republican Party officials in New Jersey are asking federal authorities to investigate the reelection campaign of Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.). Adler's campaign in the Third Congressional District in South Jersey – along with the Camden County Democratic Committee – reportedly devised a scheme to siphon votes away from Adler's Republican challenger, former professional football player Jon Runyan. The scheme allegedly involved promoting Tea Party candidate Peter DeStefano, who would take away enough votes from Runyan, to help Adler win reelection in the closely contested race.

Reporter Jane Roh of South Jersey's Courier-Post first broke the story. She joined WNYC’s Amy Eddings to discuss the developing story.

Q: Jane, you spoke to Democratic operatives connected with the Adler campaign and Camden County Democrats. Tell us what you found.

They basically confirmed what Republicans have suspected for months, which is that this plan to recruit a third-party candidate was hatched by John Adler’s campaign manager, Geoff Mackler, and the Camden County Democratic Committee. These people who are very close to the campaign told me that this plan was announced publicly in a meeting this May. Some of the people at the meeting – there were about three dozen people there – thought it was a terrible idea and they didn’t want to win that way. Other people did sign up and they helped collect signatures to get Peter DeStefano on the ballot.

Q: Who is Peter DeStefano?

That is a mystery. He has refused to meet with me since July when I first started asking about him. He owns a picture framing shop in Mount Holly. He lives in Mount Laurel. Beyond that we don’t know much about him because he refuses to sit down for an interview with us.

Q. What is Adler saying about the allegations?

Adler’s kind of softened his language a little bit. I went to him in August and he said that he had nothing to do with it, and that his staff had nothing to do with it. But he did confirm this week in an interview that Geoff Mackler, his campaign manager, was at the May 26 meeting, but that Mackler was only there to help recruit volunteers to help with Adler’s primary bid—which is kind of odd because Adler completely ignored his primary opponent. It wasn’t competitive at all. Adler says he “believes in his heart” that his staff wasn’t involved.

Q. It’s legal for the two major political parties to get a third candidate on the ballot regardless of what their intentions are, so what makes this a problem?

The issue where they possibly run up against the law is whether the people who were circulating the petitions told the residents of the Third Congressional District who they’re signing the petitions for. Now, I’ve talked to a couple of people who signed the petition who said they had no idea that they were signing the petition for a Tea Party candidate, and had they known the fact, they never would’ve signed it.

The second thing is the amount of help that DeStefano is getting from the Adler campaign and from Camden County Democrats. That runs into the law because if you have paid staffers involved in helping him—if you’re giving him money and other institutional support—there are limits to how much help you can give him and you have to disclose that in the federal election campaign filings. There are no disclosures.

Q. The district - New Jersey's 3rd - is a conservative-leaning one. The Republican Party held the seat for 16 years before Adler came into office on the coattails of President Obama's campaign in 2008. Now, Adler and Runyan are locked in a tight race with only 18 days left before Election Day. How do you think this controversy will shake up the race?

It pretty much already has. Several publications like Congressional Quarterly and the Cook Political Report have changed their ratings for the race from lean-Democrat to tossup. Polls show that Adler and Runyan are in a statistical dead heat. The pressure on the Adler campaign is quite substantial, mostly because they’re not talking, and neither are local and state Democrats. Just from a public relations perspective, it’s been sort of mangled. We’ll see what happens and whether voters are paying attention.