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Watching New Jersey: Booker’s Fate on Line

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker speaks during a June news conference to discuss his plans to campaign for the Democratic nomination for the seat of late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Voters head to the polls Tuesday for the primary election leading up to October’s special election. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Voters are at the polls in New Jersey Tuesday to select candidates who will face off for the Oct. 16 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated in June with the passing of five-term Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

The Democratic candidates are Newark mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Frank Pallone, Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly Sheila Oliver, and Rep. Rush Holt.

On the Republican ballot is businessman and former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, who served as senior policy analyst for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The other candidate is upstart Alieta Eck, a doctor.

Before he was mayor, Booker served as a Newark City Council member and is particularly well known for his charismatic public persona and lively Twitter profile. Pallone has served as a representative from NJ’s 6th district since 1988 and played a leading role in passing the Affordable Care Act.

Rep.Holt is a former professor of physics and public policy at Swarthmore College, and appeared as a contestant on “Jeopardy!” where he beat the computer known as “Watson.” Oliver is a veteran of the New Jersey legislature, having served on the General Assembly for nine years, and on the East Orange Board of Education for ten years before that.

Booker is leading strongly in a Quinnipiac poll released recently.

Most believe Booker will prevail Tuesday and go on to be elected as the next senator. We talked with three reporters covering the race to get a clear understanding of how that happened, what it means for Booker’s relationship with Gov. Chris Christie and what it could mean for politics nationally. They are Kate Zernike of the New York Times, Matt Friedman a political reporter for the Star Ledger, and Jonathan Tamari a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

If elected Tuesday, Booker would be the first black senator since Barack Obama. The dynamics of this special election have been somewhat unusual, making him the most likely winner for a number of reasons. It’s not a secret that Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are close friends. From filming chummy web videos together, to publicly praising each other through Twitter and the press, the Newark mayor and popular Republican governor have undoubtedly found common ground. When Christie, who is up for re-election this year, decided to hold the special election in October instead of November, pushing the party primaries into the dog days of summer, many saw this as a mutually beneficial political strategy.

“They were very worried about running on the same ballot together,” said Zernike. “Christie is spending $24 million to have the election earlier in October so that they don’t run into this issue. Christie has really engineered this whole plan to help both of them. He has set the dynamics of this race.”

The October date benefits Booker in a number of ways. Booker has a national profile, frequently appearing on television and winning endorsements from celebrities like Oprah. By narrowing the length between the primary and the general election, which is only about 50 days, Booker’s Republican opponent will have a very short time frame to win over voters. This makes it more likely that voters will go for the candidate they are most familiar with. Setting the primary during the beach-going months also benefits a popular candidate like Booker because voter turnout is expected to be very low.

“In New Jersey it is hard to build name recognition because of the media landscape,” said Friedman. “The local television news most people watch is centered around New York and Philadelphia, and they don’t cover New Jersey politics very much. People often know New York politicians better than their own. And Booker already had that name recognition coming into this race.”

The timing of the election benefits Christie as well, for it makes it less likely that Booker’s liberal base will show up to vote in November when the Republican will be on the ballot. Neither of the two Republican challengers, Steve Lonegan and Alieta Eck, have been officially endorsed by Christie. Lonegan is considered the front-runner in Tuesday’s GOP primary, as Eck has never held public office before and has much less money at her disposal.

Although Christie vowed to support the Republican nominee, the governor has stayed far away from the tea party candidate. “He has a fine line to walk,” Friedman pointed out. “He can’t be seen throwing Lonegan overboard, but in a blue state he doesn’t want to associate too closely with Lonegan. Lonegan can also raise uncomfortable issues for Christie, like on climate change … Remember he has those connections with the Koch brothers. He casts doubt on whether climate change is man-made very frequently.”

New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, especially when it comes to statewide office. They have not elected a Republican to the Senate in more than 40 years. It is for this reason that politicians have viewed the real race to be for the Democratic nomination. Yet the three other Democratic candidates have struggled to get a real foothold in the race.

Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt have experienced a difficult time differentiating themselves from one another. Pallone built much of his platform around the fact that he was endorsed by members of the Lautenberg family, and therefore can be seen as the ‘heir apparent’ for the seat. Holt has set himself apart by campaigning as the true progressive, advocating to repeal the Patriot Act, and to impose a carbon tax. He has claimed to solve problems with knowledge-based solutions, frequently pointing to his profession as a physicist.

Sheila Oliver has appealed to the women’s vote as the only female candidate, and the first potential female senator from the state. She is from the same part of the state as Booker, which is a bit of a wild card for Tuesday’s elections. “Cory is honestly more popular outside of Newark,” said Zernike. “There is a chance that [Oliver] could peel off some of the African-American vote. Only 25 percent of Booker’s donations came from inside New Jersey. He is much more popular nationally than in the city, which could bite him.”

Almost all of the candidates have tried to peg Booker as the “absentee mayor,” claiming he has merely used the city to further his political career and has not truly helped the citizens of Newark. Yet there is little evidence that this knock has really affected Booker’s popularity. “The Democratic primary was expected to be the toughest part, but the polls are showing that it’s not really going to be a hard race,” said Tamari. “It seems that Booker is going to have an easier ride than people had even thought previously.”

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