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‘Solid South’ Cements Booker as Frontrunner

Senate race pits ‘new Democrats’ against ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.’

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Yesterday’s endorsement of Newark Mayor Cory Booker by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), and the Democratic leadership of seven South Jersey counties signaled more than an emerging power coalition.

Coming on the heels of endorsements by South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, the public support of the “Solid South,” as Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) put it, cemented Booker’s position as the clear frontrunner in the August 13 special U.S. Senate primary for the seat held for 28 of the past 30 years by the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ).

It also signaled the emergence of a clear ideological divide in the U.S. Senate race that will pit centrist “new Democrats” who worked closely with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on budget and education issues against the liberal “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” that has bucked Christie at every turn.

Booker, Sweeney, and Greenwald made that clear with their repeated emphasis on the Democratic U.S. Senate frontrunner’s ability to “work across the aisle to get things done,” and their shared belief that Booker would bring the same ability to “break through the partisan gridlock in Washington” that he and South Jersey Democrats demonstrated with Christie in Trenton.

“They have to talk about issues of reaching across the aisle because Booker has done that and is most likely to get attacked by his primary opponents over it,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics. “He can’t run away from it, so he is embracing the ability to be seen as bipartisan.”

Booker’s post-ideological rhetoric of change is similar to the message that President Barack Obama ran on in his successful 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton and his winning general election race against John McCain later that fall.

But it is a double-edged sword in New Jersey because Booker and his most prominent backers -- Sweeney, Greenwald, the Norcrosses, and DiVincenzo -- have been criticized by traditional liberal Democrats for working with Christie on such initiatives as pension and health benefits legislation that limited collective bargaining rights, restrictions on binding arbitration, expansion of charter schools, and, in Booker’s case, merit pay for teachers and school vouchers.

Blaming the 'Christiecrats'

Liberal Democrats, particularly those worried that Christie would be a formidable opponent in the 2016 presidential race, blame the cooperation of the so-called “Christiecrats” for enabling the Republican governor to fashion a national image as a no-nonsense, bipartisan problem solver even before his famous post-Sandy embrace of President Obama and his public attack of GOP House Speaker John Boehner for holding up Sandy aid made him a national star and an overwhelming favorite to win reelection.

Booker expected to have a year before the 2014 Senate primary to distance himself from his Oprah lovefest with Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his chummy appearance with the governor in a Legislative Correspondents Show video that went viral, but Lautenberg’s death pushed that intra-party battle up by 10 months.

It also gave veteran Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt a free shot at the Senate without having to give up their House seats, and both jumped into the race, along with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

Booker’s 76 percent name recognition and 61 percent favorability rating dwarfs the 40 percent name recognition and 20 percent to 24 percent favorability ratings of the other three candidates in a Monmouth University Poll released last week . The poll showed Booker with a commanding 63 percent of the vote, compared to 10 percent for Holt, 8 percent for Pallone, and 6 percent for Oliver.

But the August 13 special election could very well challenge the record for low turnout for a Senate primary, and Pallone and Holt, in particular, are banking on committed liberals choosing the polling booth over the beach.

Pallone is a proud leader of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Blue Jersey liberals refer to themselves, and is likely to question Booker’s Democratic bona fides. Pallone, who was targeted by the Tea Party in his last two elections, was a co-author and one of the most outspoken champions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, derided by the GOP as “Obamacare.” He also fervently defended the plan in raucous public meetings when other Democrats were afraid to do so.

Pallone is also a strong environmentalist and supporter of labor unions, but so is Holt, so the backing that they might expect from those traditional Democratic constituencies will either be split or will sit the race out. Further, Pallone was one of the staunchest early supporters of Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) in her quest for the Democratic nomination for governor in the critical two weeks after Booker decided to run for Senate instead and while Sweeney and other party leaders were desperately casting about for a better-known candidate to take on Christie and his astronomical approval ratings.

Sweeney, Booker, and Greenwald have all endorsed Buono, but Norcross, who did Buono a backhanded favor by launching a vitriolic attack on former Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) when he was thinking about getting into the race, has yet to endorse, and has appeared publicly at education and healthcare events praising Christie’s accomplishments.

DiVincenzo and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the other two party power brokers who provided the critical support with Sweeney and Oliver to pass the pension and health benefits bill that is Christie’s proudest bipartisan accomplishment, both endorsed Christie for reelection over Buono -- a pair of very public repudiations of the Democratic standard-bearer that Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) criticized as treasonous.

The Perplexing Assembly Speaker

Oliver has perplexed political analysts with her decision to run for the Senate despite the lack of an endorsement from DiVincenzo, who is not only her home county’s de facto political boss, but also her actual boss -- she answers to DiVincenzo in her “day job” as an Essex County administrator. As the first woman and the second African-American to serve as Assembly speaker, she hopes to mobilize women and minority voters.

She also has the support of Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) and potentially thousands of Newark voters who never warmed to Booker, but her biggest impact on the race could very well be to keep those votes away from Pallone and Holt.

Meanwhile, Oliver has said she is undecided about whether to seek a third term as Assembly speaker, and Assembly Budget Committee Chair Vincent Prieto, the Hudson County Democratic chairman, and Vice-Chair Gary Schaer (D-Bergen) are already angling for the post if she decides not to run. Greenwald, the Assembly majority leader who would be next in line, may be blocked because Sweeney, the Senate president, is from South Jersey and plans to seek another term.

Unlike Oliver, Pallone and Holt have already secured the backing of their home counties of Monmouth and Mercer, and Pallone has an inside track in Middlesex, much of which he has represented since 2002.

Booker's Backers

But their organizational support pales compared to Booker, who not only has Essex and the seven South Jersey counties of Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, and Burlington on board -- a coalition that represents close to 35 percent of the vote in most Democratic primaries -- but is reportedly about to add Passaic and Bergen counties today, giving him the official backing of Democratic leaders representing more than half of the party.

Dworkin questioned whether having the “party line” would be as important in a special August election in which there are only the four candidates running side by side on the Democratic ballot, with no list of 20 or more names running underneath the endorsed candidate in “Column 1” to entice voters unfamiliar with the candidates to simply vote straight down the party line.

But Donald Norcross, the Camden County senator and former chair of the South Jersey Central Labor Council, predicted that organizational support would be more critical in the August Senate primary than in normal June primaries when people expect to vote.

“Unquestionably, this vote on August 13 is coming in the highest vacation week of the year, so whoever can get their vote out will win,” he said. “You need to already have an organization in place, and what you see here today is a Solid South.”

Norcross added that the special election for U.S. Senate was not an added burden, but a plus for Democrats. “What this really has done is pump blood into the Democratic Party,” he said. “There was some interest in the gubernatorial race, but now this U.S. Senate race will put New Jersey in the national spotlight.” Greenwald said the get-out-the-vote operations of the seven South Jersey county organizations would be important for Booker, but added that Booker’s national fund-raising prowess and large network of contributors could be just as important for legislative and local government candidates in South Jersey and elsewhere in the state.

The “Solid South” that controls 18 of 21 legislative seats in seven districts covering all of Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cape May, Cumberland, and Atlantic counties, plus parts of Burlington and Ocean, holds the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, giving party leaders the ability to negotiate either with Christie or the rest of the Democratic majority as needed.

It was fear that a Christie landslide could imperil some of those seats, despite a favorable 2011 redistricting map, that encouraged South Jersey leaders to push Booker to run for the governorship initially and made it easy to support his Senate candidacy yesterday.

Booker pledged to return to South Jersey after the scheduled special Senate general election on October 16th “as a sitting U.S. senator” to campaign for the region’s Democratic legislative and local government candidates in the November 5 regular general election, and to help Democrats win more county and local office “to build up our majority” when he would have to run again for a full six-year term in 2014.

That majority, Greenwald noted, was built up painstakingly over a 20-year period by South Jersey Democratic legislators “who have always had to cross party lines to protect the interests of South Jersey” in a Legislature dominated by North Jersey votes. “We built coalitions where we needed to,” Greenwald said, and since 2001, a South Jersey Democrat has led one house of the Legislature or the other -- even though the eight South Jersey counties make up just a quarter of the state’s population and legislative delegation.

“We have compromised,” Sweeney, the South Jersey Senate president, proudly told the crowd assembled in Auletto’s Sunset Ballroom in Deptford for the Booker endorsement. “We have crossed the aisle. We have gotten things done. Cory Booker has too. This is not about North and South. This is about one New Jersey.”

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