Analysts said if the governor were to keep his star power with the national party, his candidate - Runyan - had to win the toughest House race on Christie's turf.
At the Mount Laurel Marriott, Adler conceded before about 100 supporters as his wife, Shelley, and four sons wept or choked back tears behind him.
"I know these are tough times," Adler said. But, he added, "we should be optimistic about America because we figure a way out of out of the problems we create or the world creates for us."
And, he joked, "I can go home, do my laundry, and sleep in for a change."
Tuesday's results were driven by voter angst over the economy, said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin.
"In some countries, people riot in the streets and they shut down the government and they occupy buildings," Dworkin said. "We don't see that in America. The most universal opportunity to vent our frustrations at our government is by voting, and that often means voting against whomever happens to be in charge."
The battle for the Third District, which runs through Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County, was New Jersey's hardest fought, most expensive and most bitter House race.
Though the main combatants were Adler, 51, of Cherry Hill, and Runyan, 36, of Mount Laurel, the race became a proxy fight for the nation. Donors from around the country sent in more than $5 million in contributions because they wanted their side to win. Control of the House was up for grabs, and it went to the GOP.
But this race came down to battlegrounds in Ocean County, where Republicans mended fences among warring factions and got behind Runyan, giving him enough votes to counteract Democratic majorities in Burlington County river towns and Willingboro and Cherry Hill.
Though independent polls showed this race too close to call last week, by the time Adler conceded shortly before 10 p.m. Monday, it was a definitive win for Runyan.
The 6-foot-7 former tackle came out of Ocean County with a 3-2 edge over Adler, which was enough to wipe away Adler's victory in the Burlington County side of the district. And in Democratic-leaning Cherry Hill, Adler won handily, but did not pull the volume of voters needed to make a difference in the race.
Adler was the first Democrat to win this House district in memory, but that was in 2008, when he flew into office firmly attached to President Obama's coattails. The district showed signs of returning to its Republican roots last year when it went for Christie.
In this race, voters heard more talk about donkeys and a self-proclaimed tea party candidate than what candidates could do to ease fears. Voter frustration was palpable and focused, sometimes on change for change's sake.
In Cherry Hill, lifelong Democrat Mark Koch voted for Republican Runyan.
"I'm a staunch Democrat," the soft-spoken Koch said. "But a message had to be sent."
And that message rang louder than the messages Adler and his supporters put on television.
In the final week of the campaign, Adler spent $830,000 on broadcast television in the expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent an additional $700,000 to attack Runyan on Philadelphia television.
Runyan got an assist with television advertising and grassroots organizing from the Republican-leaning American Future Fund and Americans for Prosperity, two groups that do not have to disclose their donors.
Adler outraised Runyan by $3.1 million to $1.2 million, and Runyan wound up lending his campaign $350,000.
Adler and Runyan approached the race with "trust me" campaigns.
Adler, a former 17-year state senator, called himself a centrist, dedicated to helping small businesses create jobs. He voted against Obama's health-care bill but for the stimulus package. Runyan spoke vaguely about cutting taxes but offered no specifics on which federal programs he would trim.
Their campaigns left voters with a choice between an unpredictable Democrat and a Republican who would be taking his lead from the party.
Voters said they were confused and annoyed by the candidates' attacks and counterattacks. Adler criticized Runyan for the legal use of a farmland assessment to get a tax break on his sprawling Mount Laurel estate, where he grazes four donkeys and cuts timber.
Runyan accused Adler of fielding a fake tea party candidate to draw votes away from the Republican. Both Adler and that candidate, Peter DeStefano, denied collusion. Whatever his motivation for joining the race, DeStefano came in a distant third and did not draw enough votes from Runyan to help Adler.
Though the district has elected Republicans for decades, in the last two elections it showed a hunger for change. It voted for Obama in 2008 and for Christie in 2009 after both campaigned on vague promises of changing the status quo.
Adler was the only incumbent New Jersey congressman to lose a race Tuesday. Among those reelected were Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews and Republican U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith.
Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writers Matt Katz, Adrienne Lu, Jacqueline L. Urgo, Rita Giordano, Mike Newall, James Osborne, and Bobby Olivier contributed to this article.