At least one top Republican in Burlington County balked at Lonegan's decision to announce his intentions one day ahead of the party organization's candidate screening Saturday.
"He decided what he always does: It's not what's in the best interest of the party, it's what's in the best interest of Steve Lonegan," Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton said. "He'll meet the same fate he's met in every election, and that's that he'll lose."
Lonegan has long been publicly mulling a run. He first told the Newark Star-Ledger that he would definitely enter the race.
The district has been dominated by Republicans for decades but is one of the most closely divided in the country - President Obama has won it twice.
"We need to keep this seat. It's a very competitive district," Lonegan said Friday. "It's going to be a hard-fought campaign, and you're going to need a candidate who can mobilize the entire Republican base as well as conservative Democrats."
Lonegan, who while opposing Booker won high-profile endorsements from Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), said he has 25,000 donors across the country, has built-in name recognition, and won 54 percent of the district's vote in last fall's Senate race.
But he has always run as a fierce conservative and now will be seeking the nomination in a district that has typically chosen moderates. Lonegan, for example, opposed the federal aid package to help rebuild after Sandy, the storm that caused massive damage in part of Runyan's district.
He also will be brand-new to the district. Lonegan grew up in Bergen County and served as mayor of a small city there, Bogota. He said he has purchased a house in Lavallette, on the Shore, and plans to close on it in the next few weeks. He said that he had spent "a lot of time" in the district as a conservative activist over the last decade and that the race should be decided by who can best articulate conservative principles.
"It's not just about a guy who might live down the street," he said.
A two-time candidate for governor, losing twice in GOP primaries, Lonegan faces significant obstacles.
First is residency. Although candidates do not have to live in the district in which they are running, Republicans two years ago hammered Democrat Shelley Adler as a carpetbagger because she lived in neighboring Cherry Hill - which had been part of the district until it was excised in a GOP-friendly redistricting. Lonegan's hometown, Bogota, is roughly 90 miles north of Runyan's Mount Laurel district office.
Lonegan also repeatedly said the Senate race would be his last campaign. On election night in October, he said he would enter the private sector. On Friday, he said, "I am very passionate about the private sector," but added that he has "a special desire" to advocate for "free-market principles" in public life.
Perhaps most problematic, he has riled local party leaders, who had hoped to unite behind a consensus candidate and avoid the kind of bloody primary that has hurt Republicans in the past. Burlington and Ocean County Republican leaders have said they hoped to work together to pick a candidate.
Lonegan's announcement "clearly sends a message to the Burlington County Republican Committee that he doesn't really care what we say," said Layton. "It's kind of hard when you get your back up against a wall to turn around and support someone who doesn't care one way or another what we do or what we say."
He added, "This is typical of Steve. It's why he's never been a consensus-builder, it's why he's never been successful at winning primaries, and it's most likely why he'll fail again."
Lonegan said he would attend the Burlington County screening process Saturday and has met with Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore but indicated that he might run even if he doesn't have party backing.
"There's nothing wrong with primaries," Lonegan said.
Layton said 13 Republican candidates would be screened Saturday. The most well-known, he said, include Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, Assemblyman David Wolfe, former Randolph Mayor Tom MacArthur (who has also said he will relocate from North Jersey), Toms River Councilman Maurice "Mo" Hill, and former Burlington County Freeholder Bruce Gargano.
Layton said the group hoped to make an endorsement within the month.
Aimee Belgard, a Burlington County freeholder, is the only Democrat to enter the race.
Democrats pounced on Lonegan's conservative record.
"The tea party sent a clear sign today that its sights are set on South Jersey and radical Steve Lonegan will be their standard-bearer," said Marc Brumer, a spokesman for Democrats' congressional campaign arm.