John Adler of New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District is facing a tough fight for a second term this year. After winning this historically Republican district in 2008 by just 4 points he is facing a serious challenge from former NFL player Jon Runyon (R) in November. Things looked bad for Adler until, as if by divine providence, a “Tea Party” candidate swooped into the race and threatens to split the conservative vote. It looks like Adler will be saved after all. That is, however, until someone did some investigating on the newcomer.

A controversy arose when the Adler camp released a poll last week that showed him defeating Runyon by double digits, while “Tea Party” candidate Pete DeStefano took a significant 12 point share of the vote; mainly from Runyon. NJPoliticker.com reported on this after the Courier-Post broke the story earlier in the week; it appears Mr. DeStefano’s identification with the Tea Party requires some clarification.   

The Runyon camp denies the validity of the controversial poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in October of 2009, in which then Gov. Jon Corzine (D) was winning by three points, with independent Chris Daggett securing 14 points. To be fair, most of the polling done in NJ (right up to Election Day) had Daggett receiving double digit support.

The poll also showed that only 3 percent of the voters were undecided; a curiously low level of indecision that is inconsistent with the nature of House races and the amount of time before the election.

But was more than DeStefano’s polling performance that was disconcerting for New Jersey conservatives. DeStefano’s repeated focus on attacking Runyon rather than Adler has prompted some to investigate the “Tea Party” candidate, only to discover more questions than answers.

DeStefano’s petition to get him on the November ballot (consisting of fewer than 240 signatures) includes high profile and long-time Adler supporters and donors.

According to reports, DeStefano acted inappropriately and aggressively in a closed door meeting of the West Jersey Tea Party, which prompted the group to disavow any association with DeStefano. The Examiner reported that his attacks on Runyon “violated decorum.” When asked to remain behind for consultation, DeStefano declined.

The group’s founder, Bill Haney, called DeStefano “a shill.” Haney neglected to speculate as to whom DeStefano is “a shill” for.

This could all be written off as a 2010 anomaly if it was not supported by similar incidents in other parts of the country.

In Florida’s 8th District, controversial and outspoken Rep. Alan Grayson (D) allegedly sponsored a pollster that his campaign previously paid $19,898 to run for the state House as a “Tea Party” candidate.

The “Florida Tea Party,” to which Grayson’s pollster, Victoria Torres, is linked has enough connections to previously registered Democrats or very recently registered Republicans to raise red flags. Conservative Florida activists have been claiming that the “Florida Tea Party” is a subversive group for months.

In Michigan, a group calling itself the “Tea Party” filed a petition that, if accepted, would allow for candidates to be listed under a “Tea Party” column in general elections. That effort would split the Republican vote between GOP and Tea Party sympathizers.

Such a development would certainly benefit the Democratic Party, but Michigan’s Democratic leadership has denied any involvement. The Michigan Tea Party Alliance, allegedly the genuine arm of the grassroots Tea Party movement in Michigan, is claiming that fraudulent signatures are being used to justify the new party’s formation and are calling for an investigation.

While there is no “smoking gun” that would indict any campaign on charges of stacking the election in favor of the Democratic incumbent (even if there were there is nothing illegal about such behavior) there is enough circumstance to merit further investigation. Some good journalism has been done in New Jersey, and the local press in Florida and Michigan are doing their homework, but there are still many questions left unanswered.

It behooves national media outlets, in between racially-charged “gotcha” stories whose impact on national politics likely to be negligible, to investigate what appears to be a national trend. If “Trojan Horse Tea Partiers” are becoming a national phenomenon, it is unlikely that it will be attributable to a spontaneous, grassroots movement devoid of national direction.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com