As Election Day draws near, national conservative groups have spent nearly $2 million on ads in Philadelphia’s expensive media market. Their goal? To lock down support for Republican Tom MacArthur, the frontrunner in the race to replace retiring South Jersey Congressman Jon Runyan.
On a recent Saturday, the mayor of Toms River introduced MacArthur to members of the crowd at a street festival. He shook many hands that afternoon, but one of them was Frank Capone’s, the owner of a local pizza joint where MacArthur says he frequently orders meals to be delivered his condo.
Capone promised to deliver more pies to the halls of Congress.
“Absolutely, if you’re gonna change Washington, we’ll be there,” he told MacArthur.
Changing Washington is the name of the game in the race for New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from the Delaware River in Burlington County to the Atlantic in Ocean County.
Republicans and Democrats have focused a lot of time and resources here, hoping to turn the tide in their favor.
That’s why late last year, MacArthur stepped down as the mayor of Randolph in North Jersey and bought a condo in Toms River.
But he insists he’s no carpetbagger. MacArthur and his wife have owned a Shore home in Barnegat Light for nine years. It’s where they attend church and where they have done much of their philanthropic work.
“I think when somebody has roots and ties in a community that’s different than just dropping in by parachute with no prior connection and that’s not what I’ve done here,” he said.
MacArthur got into politics four years ago after retiring as chairman and CEO of York Risk Services Group – the insurance firm he founded and later sold for $500 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He was elected to Randolph’s all-Republican township council and in 2013, was chosen unanimously by his fellow council members to serve as mayor.
MacArthur says in Congress, his political experience will matter far less than his 30 years in business.
“I understand how the real economy works,” he said. “We have a lot of issues in this country today, but the economy and job creation is at the top of the list and it’s the underpinning of so many other issues that I really feel we need more people in congress that understand how to make a difference there.”
MacArthur wants to simplify the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act. He put out a jobs plan that includes expanding South Jersey’s rail system past Bayhead and scaling back what he calls “overzealous regulation” across all sectors of the economy.
MacArthur presents as a self-made man and has loaned his campaign $5 million of his own money.
But the cash, the insurance firm and the fact he’s from N.Y. Giants territory made some local Republicans skeptical at first. As one Ocean County committeeman put it – “does Congress need another rich insurance executive?”
He quickly won them over and got their support in a bitter and expensive primary battle against tea party-endorsed Steve Lonegan.
Bill Layton, Burlington County’s Republican Chairman, says MacArthur passes his “beer test:”
“Regardless of his success, Tom is someone you can definitely sit down and have a beer with and I always judge people by that,” he said.
But a national group backing his Democratic challenger – Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard – spent more than $1 million on TV ads trying to sway voters still reeling from Superstorm Sandy.
“Too many families have to fight insurance companies every day like the company insurance CEO Tom MacArthur ran, accused of cheating victims of similar disasters,” one ad says.
MacArthur had already left the company at the time of the accusations and the Democratic organization that sponsored the ads retracted two of them for inaccuracies.
The most recent polls show MacArthur leading between 5 and 10 points. Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray says Belgard’s attacks haven’t worked with voters.
“I think that they probably believe that he’s gotten a bum rap for some of these things,” Murray said.
But other factors, including President Obama’s low approval ratings, are helping Republicans across the country.
Over the last two weeks, MacArthur has been on a mission visit all 53 towns in the district, going door-to-door and stopping in at local events. He’s even hit up a diner with Governor Chris Christie who’s said he doesn’t “invest in lost causes.”
This is the second of two profiles on the congressional race in New Jersey’s 3rd District between Aimee Belgard (D) and Tom MacArthur (R). Click here for our profile of Belgard.