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Booker, Lonegan Welcome Battle Over Federal Shutdown

Shutdown underscores stark differences over federal spending and Affordable Care Act heading into their first Senate debate

For Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan, the four-day-old shutdown of the federal government underscores the stark policy differences between the U.S. Senate candidates on the role and size of federal government, the Affordable Care Act, and the three-year battle between President Obama and the GOP-controlled House that has plunged Washington into gridlock and fiscal crisis.

Heading into their first debate tonight, it is a battle both Booker and Lonegan welcome, but for very different reasons.

For Lonegan, a conservative true-believer who would be more comfortable running in Rand Paul’s Kentucky than in moderate New Jersey, the Republican House’s willingness to furlough 780,000 federal workers in an effort to force Obama to roll back the Affordable Care Act is a proper exercise of congressional power to curtail the growth of the federal government.

Lonegan believes voters will agree with him when they vote in the October 16 special election for U.S. Senate, regardless of what the polls show and regardless of whether most federal offices are still shuttered on the day of the election because of Washington gridlock. “The entire state is going to cast a referendum on Obamacare,” Lonegan declared, making it clear he would regard his victory as a policy mandate.

For Booker, the shutdown is a welcome reminder to New Jersey’s blue-state majority that policy differences between Democrats and Republicans matter -- and matter more than Booker’s Seinfeld-like comments on his own sexuality, fondness for midnight manicures and pedicures, Twitter chatter with a vegan club stripper, Hollywood fund-raisers, unreported income from partnerships with high-tech billionaires, and questions about whether the street characters in his stories are real, composites or imaginary.

The stream of personal stories about Booker have tarnished his political star and cut his polling lead in half from 25 points the week after he and Lonegan won their August 13 special Senate primaries to just 12 to 13 points in the most recent Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls.

But Booker this week started to turn his Senate race into a referendum on the shutdown, federal spending, the Affordable Care Act, and congressional gridlock. Booker used a joint appearance with Gov. Chris Christie in Newark to remind voters of his record of bipartisan cooperation with the popular Republican governor, brought in Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to brand Lonegan as one of “a band of radicals who want to drag the country and its economy over a cliff,” and launched a TV ad campaign calling Lonegan “too extreme” and charging that he wants to privatize Medicare and Social Security.

“My opponent thinks that Ted Cruz is a great guy,” Booker declares, referring to the freshman Republican U.S. senator from Texas who almost singlehandedly forced the shutdown battle over the Affordable Care Act.

Lonegan welcomes the ideological battle over the federal government shutdown that Cruz engineered, which is why he brings in conservative leaders like Texas Gov. Rick Perry to denounce Obamacare as “criminal,” dismisses the partial federal government shutdown as a “little inconvenience,” and praises House Republicans for having “the guts to hold the line on the Obama assault on our healthcare.”

It is a position that puts him in stark contrast not only to Booker, but also to Christie, who has blasted the shutdown as a bipartisan failure of government to do its job. And it is a position that puts him in the opposing camp from most New Jersey voters, political experts agree.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, said the shutdown issue has the potential to really hurt Lonegan “if Booker decides to make hay out of it. People don’t like the shutdown and New Jersey voters blame the Republican Congress” -- people especially meaning the independent swing voters that Lonegan needs to win over if he is going to close the rest of the 13-point gap separating him from Booker in the last Monmouth Poll.

“Lonegan believes turnout in this election will be much smaller than usual, so he’s not afraid to bring in Sarah Palin, Rand Paul and Rick Perry. He feels there’s no downside,” Murray noted, even though these hot-button conservatives could turn off New Jersey’s moderate independent voters while revving up the conservative base that Lonegan needs to turn out in large numbers.

“My polling indicates there’s going to be a higher turnout, and it’s going to be more Democratic than they think,” he said, partly because of the strong get-out-the-vote operation Booker showed off in his August 13 primary victory and has been refining ever since.

John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, agreed that the shutdown potentially hurts Lonegan. “Conservative voters who are enthusiastic about Lonegan and his message will be reinforced and invigorated by the shutdown battle,” Weingart said. “But for most voters in New Jersey, this will just reinforce the fact that there is a large policy difference between Democrats and Republicans,” and in a blue state where independents lean toward the Democratic Party, that’s bad news for Lonegan.

“This issue will stay in the forefront of public debate certainly through the Senate election,” Weingart noted, pointing out that the government shutdown has gotten wrapped up with the dispute over raising the federal debt ceiling -- which carries a federal default deadline of October 17, one day after the New Jersey U.S. Senate special election.

Weingart noted that Booker -- like Christie, but unlike Lonegan -- has portrayed himself as “a different kind of Democrat, one who is willing to cross party lines to reach an agreement, and potentially that message would be more attractive to voters in the present moment than it might have been a month ago.”

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