TRENTON -- Steve Lonegan, the conservative firebrand who ran unsuccessfully last summer in New Jersey's special U.S. Senate election, launched his campaign Thursday for a South Jersey congressional seat.
His announcement in Toms River drew immediate rebukes, however, from a Republican state senator in the district and a tea party group.
And it threatened to plunge the Third District race into a grueling Republican primary reminiscent of the 2008 campaign that helped Democrats win the seat in a mild upset before losing it two years later to Republican Jon Runyan. Besides Lonegan, more than a dozen other Republicans have expressed interest in running to replace Runyan, who is retiring from Congress.
Political prognosticators say the race is a toss-up. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting the district, in Burlington and Ocean Counties, as it tries to retake the House. On the Democratic side, Aimee Belgard, a Burlington County freeholder, is running.
(The DCCC made clear how it would try to define Lonegan in the traditionally moderate Republican district. "Next Stop for Tea Party Express and Steve Lonegan: South Jersey," the group wrote in a news release Thursday.)
Lonegan, who has also run twice for governor, pledged to run on a platform similar to the one he did in the Senate race, in which he attacked former Newark Mayor Cory Booker from June until he lost by a closer-than-expected margin of 11 points in October.
"Government has become way too big, intrusive in our lives, and is undermining our liberty and prosperity," Lonegan said in an interview Thursday, President Ronald Reagan's birthday.
Other Republicans did not draw positive comparisons between Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota in Bergen County, and Reagan.
"President Reagan promoted the inclusive 'big tent' approach to building our party, and in the process strengthened the Republican brand," State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R., Burlington) said in a statement Thursday.
"Unfortunately, Mayor Lonegan has taken the exact opposite approach over the last decade, and the results have been disastrous," she said, "due to a style that is angry and positions that are callous."
Like other Republican establishment figures, Addiego took issue with Lonegan's opposition to the Hurricane Sandy relief package passed by Congress after the storm, which battered the district.
Lonegan has said he would have supported the aid only if Congress reduced other spending by a like amount.
Burlington County GOP Chairman Bill Layton has also expressed frustration with Lonegan's decision to run but did not rule him out when asked about an endorsement: "The process hasn't concluded yet, so for me to say unequivocally that he's not in the mix is not fair."
For his part, Lonegan, who moved to Lavallette last week, said he had an established grassroots organization "throughout the district."
His main selling point? "I won this district against Cory Booker by over eight points -- the best performance by any Republican in over a decade," he said. "Against a Democratic superstar."
Perhaps more surprising was the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC's swipe at Lonegan. "In order to be a champion, you have to be able to set a proper tone and win elections," the group said Thursday in a statement endorsing former Randolph Mayor Tom MacArthur.
Other top Republican candidates include former Burlington County Freeholder Bruce Gargano and Toms River Councilman Maurice Hill.
Lonegan, a former state director of Americans for Prosperity, which raises money for tea-party and conservative candidates, did not dwell on the Independence Hall PAC endorsement.
"They're bitter, washed-up people," he said. "They belong in Pennsylvania."
Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article. ___