Booker poised for victory in New Jersey’s special senate election

BY Simone Pathe  October 15, 2013 at 10:50 PM EDT

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic nominee in Wednesday’s special senate election in New Jersey, is widely expected to win — the question is by how much. Here he leaves the stage at Rowan University after debating former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, the GOP nominee, who exits with his wife. Photo courtesy of Michael Bryant/Getty Images.

The shutdown and debt ceiling drama consuming Washington has ginned up plenty of handicapping of the 2014 midterm elections, but one state’s beating the rest to the polls: New Jersey voters will elect a new senator in a special election Wednesday that will almost certainly return the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat to Democratic hands.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic nominee, holds a lead over former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan, the Republican nominee, by 14 points in Tuesday’s Quinnipiac poll. The seat’s placeholder, former state attorney general Jeffrey Chiesa, whom Gov. Chris Christie appointed to the seat after Lautenberg died in June, is not running.

The Twitter-savvy Booker is nationally famous as leader of the state’s largest city. Bogota lies about 20 miles farther up on the Turnpike along North Jersey’s industrial corridor. Few people, even in New Jersey, are familiar with or are even sure how to pronounce the name of the 8,000-person borough Lonegan led for 12 years.

Having outraised his opponent 8 to 1, with a large out-of-state cashflow, Booker is expected to trounce the little-known Lonegan, whose tea-party allegiances are at odds with a blue state that went for President Barack Obama by 58 percent in the 2012 election.

But Booker’s lead has been slipping recently.

The latest Monmouth University poll, released Monday, showed Booker holding a 52 to 42 percent edge. That’s a decline from the 16-percentage-point lead Booker held this summer and the 12-point advantage he held two weeks ago.

That doesn’t necessarily mean New Jersey voters are softening on Lonegan’s brand of conservatism. Instead, Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray told the Star-Ledger, “The message seems to be that Garden State voters don’t like to feel that their support is being taken for granted.”

Booker’s relative absence on the campaign trail since the primary hasn’t helped perceptions that he’s running on his public image, exploiting Newark to catapult his political career. In Tuesday’s Quinnipiac poll, 48 percent said Booker was running for a place on the national stage, while only 37 percent said he was running to serve New Jersey.

Seizing on that idea, Lonegan said in a debate last week that, “What New Jersey needs is a leader, not a tweeter.”

Booker’s candidacy hasn’t been without more concrete bumps. He failed to disclose his seat on the board of an Internet startup he founded (and has since sold his shares), and he received payments from a former law firm that was benefitting from city contracts. Most recently, Booker got himself in hot water after tweeting at an Oregon stripper.

In a late burst of campaign events, Booker was on the trail with Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz this weekend. And last week, after a series of positive spots, the former Rhodes Scholar released an attack ad, calling Lonegan “too extreme for New Jersey.” Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC stepped in with a $1 million ad campaign defending Booker — all signs that the Booker campaign was starting to feel less than comfortable with the underdog closing in on their heels. The president also weighed in with a video, saying Booker would help end the fiscal stalemate in Washington.

Booker has struck a harsher tone in recent days, using that federal shutdown to intensify attacks on Lonegan and tie him to the “tea party fringe” that “hijacked” Washington, a refrain heard often in last week’s debates.

Lonegan, meanwhile, has campaigned with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The National Republican Senatorial Committee hasn’t put boots on the ground or paid for radio or TV ads in the state.

Lonegan is a former state director of Americans for Prosperity and opposes lifting the debt ceiling without massive spending cuts.

He just doesn’t share the politics of most of New Jersey’s Republicans — including Gov. Chris Christie, who is chummy with Booker and has partnered with him on efforts to improve Newark.

If there were any threat to Booker’s victory, it would be turnout. Special elections don’t draw huge crowds, and there’s a chance highly motivated Lonegan supporters will post a reasonably strong showing. Plus, voting takes place on a Wednesday, not a Tuesday like most election days. Mr. Obama took pains to remind voters of the date in his video endorsement.

Indeed, New Jersey voters head to the polls twice this fall. After Lautenberg’s death fast-forwarded Booker’s 2014 candidacy, Christie wanted to ensure the special senate election wouldn’t be on the same day he’s up for re-election. Having a famous Democrat on the top of the ballot, Christie feared, could encourage some voters to vote a straight-ticket, boosting support for his Democratic rival, state Sen. Barbara Buono. Christie would win regardless, but it’s widely suspected he wants to secure the largest possible margin of victory to sell a possible presidential candidacy for 2016.

Margins of victory will tell the story of this election, too. There’s little doubt Booker will win; the suspense is waiting to see by just how much.