In a first-ever Wednesday election that set a record for low voter turnout for a U.S. Senate campaign in New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker defeated strident conservative challenger Steve Lonegan in a closer-than-expected race that was viewed nationally as a referendum on the 16-day federal government shutdown engineered by the Republican Right in a vain attempt to overturn President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Ironically, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives was caving in and acquiescing to passage of a bipartisan Senate compromise to end the shutdown and avert default on the federal debt at virtually the same time that Booker took the stage at the Performing Arts Center last night and pledged to bring a spirit of bipartisanship to Washington.
For the past two weeks, both Booker and Lonegan urged voters to use their Senate vote to send a message to Washington on the partisan brinkmanship that led to the government shutdown. Booker said a vote for him would represent a rejection of “Tea Party extremism,” while Lonegan urged House Republicans to “hold the line” in their effort to force Obama and Senate Democrats to delay the Affordable Care Act and cut federal spending.
Last night, even fervent Lonegan supporters like Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) acknowledged that the unpopularity of the shutdown, which New Jersey voters blamed mainly on Republicans, and the growing split between Tea Party true believers and Senate moderates hurt Lonegan’s vote totals.
“This election was as much about an approach to politics as it was about personality and party,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “The shutdown framed the last two weeks, and New Jerseyans clearly voted against those who don’t believe in deal-making. They supported an approach to politics that values bipartisanship, negotiation and compromise."
“This has ramifications for the election we’re going to see three weeks from now. Gov. Christie, who is well ahead in the polls, and the Democrats in the Legislature have been emphasizing their bipartisanship. They’re both going to look at Booker’s victory as proof that they’re taking the right approach in their elections.”
Booker defeated Lonegan by just over 144,000 votes in a Senate election in which just over 1.3 million votes were cast -- far fewer than the 2.2 million New Jerseyans who voted in the 2006 U.S. Senate election, the last one in which the U.S. Senate race was at the top of the ticket. Booker’s 55 percent to 44 percent victory fell between the margins of last weekend’s Monmouth University poll and Quinnipiac poll, which showed Booker winning by 10 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Booker’s overwhelming victory in his August 13 U.S. Senate primary, which featured a higher-than-expected Democratic turnout, was attributed to an aggressive Obama-style voter identification and get-out-the-vote effort, but yesterday he relied primarily on “volunteers and the city and county Democratic organizations to get out the vote,” John Currie, the state Democratic chairman, said last night.
Booker piled up a 175,000-vote plurality in New Jersey’s seven most urbanized counties, winning 74 percent of the vote in Hudson and his home county of Essex, 66 percent in Mercer, 64 percent in Camden and Union, 59 percent in Currie’s Passaic, and 58 percent in Middlesex. At the same time, he took about 45 percent of the vote in the traditional GOP strongholds of Morris and Monmouth, and came within 800 votes of carrying Republican Somerset County
The victory makes Booker New Jersey’s first African-American U.S. senator, and with Cuban-American Robert Menendez already serving in the upper house, it apparently will make New Jersey the first state other than Hawaii to have two minority senators serving at the same time.