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Booker Bests Lonegan for Senate in Showdown Over Shutdown

cory booker

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.

Booker’s victory also continues New Jersey’s 41-year streak of electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate in 14 consecutive elections, with Clifford Case’s reelection victory in 1972 marking the last GOP Senate triumph.

Yesterday’s unusual Wednesday special election was engineered by Christie, who as governor has the power to decide whether and when to call a special election for U.S. Senate. The Republican governor was relieved when Booker decided last December to run for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat in 2014 rather than set up a high-profile battle of the media stars by challenging Christie for the governorship this November.

When Lautenberg died in June, Christie decided to spend $24 million in tax dollars to shoehorn in a special Senate primary on August 13 and a special Senate election on October 16. By doing so, Christie kept Booker, the presumed Democratic Senate nominee, from running above Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono on the November 5 ballot and piggybacking on Booker's volunteer effort and get-out-the-vote operation.

Christie’s interim appointee to the Senate, Republican Jeff Chiesa, was in Washington, D.C., voting last night on compromise legislation to end the 16-day federal government shutdown and avert a potential debt default, and could easily have served another 20 days until the November 5 election. The $24 million estimated cost for the two special elections came out to $13.33 a vote for the 490,000 votes cast in the primary and just over 1.3 million in the special general election.

In theory, Christie’s stratagem could have helped Lonegan or another Republican steal a New Jersey Senate seat for a year in a low-turnout election to fill the last year of Lautenberg’s term, but Christie could have achieved the same purpose simply by not scheduling a special election and allowing Chiesa to serve until November 2014 -- as disgruntled national Republican conservative leaders pointed out in June.

Christie endorsed Lonegan after his August primary win, raised some money for his Senate race, and taped an Election Day robocall for him, but the two never campaigned together and have been waging very different campaigns.

While Lonegan waged the most ideologically conservative race in modern New Jersey political history, Christie has spent much of the last two months campaigning in the cities, picking up Democratic endorsements and preaching bipartisanship. And while Lonegan proudly backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and House Republicans for forcing a government shutdown in a vain attempt to overturn Obamacare and made the shutdown the centerpiece of his campaign, Christie denounced the shutdown as a failure of leadership by both parties.

Lautenberg’s death and Christie’s decision to call a special election this year forced Booker to speed up his Senate plans, but he had already raised $1.6 million at the time of Lautenberg’s death and he quickly raised another $6.4 million, quickly surpassing the $3.7 million war chest that Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) brought into the race and the $800,000 that Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) did.

Running with the support of the state’s most powerful Democratic bosses, Booker put large sums into a hastily assembled Barack Obama-style get-out-the-vote that brought out higher-than-expected Democratic vote numbers for the state’s first-ever mid-August primary and enabled him to pile up 59 percent of the vote against Pallone, Holt, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

Booker came out of the primary with a lead ranging from a low of 16 percent in the Monmouth University Poll to as high as 24 percent for a race that most political experts expected to be a triumphant two-month coronation. They didn’t reckon on a series of Booker public relations gaffes and an aggressive Lonegan messaging campaign that cut into Booker’s lead and make him take the fight to Lonegan over the last month.

“I wouldn’t say it was overconfidence, but they were confident heading into this election,” Dworkin said of the Booker team.

Yesterday, it proved to be closer than anyone expected two months ago. And with Booker having to run for reelection to a full six-year term in November 2014, Lonegan could be back for a rematch.

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