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Lonegan vs. Booker: Polar Opposites in a Polarized Nation

U.S. Senate candidates differ more on domestic policy than in any modern NJ statewide race

booker lonegan debate

It’s the kind of race Phyllis Schlafly envisioned in 1964 when she wrote “A Choice, Not An Echo” in support of Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to wrest the GOP away from the “Rockefeller Republicans” and unsuccessful effort to wrest the country away from liberal Democrats and the “Great Society” they wanted to build.

Schlafly, now 89 years old and still president of the Eagle Forum, was one of the first national Republican leaders to enthusiastically endorse Steve Lonegan’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, declaring that his victory in the October 16 special election would be “proof that straight talk, not watered-down messages, are what Republicans need to win back elections.”

Lonegan has not disappointed conservative backers like Schlafly by toning down his rhetoric in any way, even though he is running for the first time with the support of the state’s Republican Party.

Lonegan put his unwavering support for a ban on abortion, Second Amendment gun rights, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, opposition to gay marriage, a partial privatization of Social Security, elimination of the Common Core Educational Standards and the federal Department of Education itself, and a reduction in college loans as part of an overall program to cut federal spending and debt on full display in his first debate with Democratic opponent Cory Booker.

Meanwhile, one podium over, Booker used the debate to underscore his opposite positions in support for the current “right to choose” abortion law, stricter gun control, the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health insurance, legalization of gay marriage, continuation of Social Security, federal involvement in education policy, more aid to college students, and increased government spending on infrastructure and both K-12 and higher education.

While each used politically charged language to brand the other as an “extremist,” there is no question that on domestic policy issues and fundamental government philosophy, New Jersey voters have not had a clearer choice in recent political history, and quite possibly not since the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution provided for the direct election of U.S. senators 100 years ago.

“Lonegan’s comments on healthcare – ‘If you have cancer, it’s your problem. If I’m blind, it’s my problem’ -- are so far outside the public thinking of almost anyone in a prominent position in politics in New Jersey over the last 80 years that it’s hard to imagine a statewide race with clearer differences between the candidates,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Lonegan is certainly the most conservative candidate nominated by the New Jersey GOP – one of the last bastions of the Rockefeller Republicans that Schlafly despised -- since 25-year-old political unknown Jeff Bell upset liberal Republican Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 primary and went on to lose to Bill Bradley, a former New York Knicks star and vaunted Rhodes Scholar at Princeton University whose political celebrity at a young age paralleled Booker’s fame.

Unlike Bell, whose policy positions anticipated the rise of Ronald Reagan, for whom Bell later worked, Lonegan today is clearly in the mainstream of Republican primary voters national and the GOP House majority they elected with a mandate to cut government spending and debt, repeal Obamacare, ban abortion, and block gay marriage.

While the Bradley-Bell debates had the feel of polite academic forums, Friday’s politically charged Booker-Lonegan debate took place with Democrats and Republicans locked in a stalemate over government spending and Obamacare that forced a partial federal government shutdown now entering its seventh day, with the government facing default if agreement on a new debt ceiling cannot be reached by October 17, the day after New Jersey’s U.S. Senate special election.

“Voters know this time that policy differences matter,” Weingart noted.

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