There was a brief cheer when Hunterdon County results were announced -- and again for Monmouth -- but there was hardly a sense last night at the election party for Republican challenger Steve Lonegan that it would prove to be an evening of upsets.
The margin between Lonegan and Newark Mayor Cory Booker in the polls -- and in campaign finances -- was too big. The votes out of the larger counties would prove too daunting. The odd Wednesday scheduling of election day didn’t help much, either.
And according to more than one supporter inside and outside the campaign, it was hardly helpful that the federal government shutdown was back in the news yesterday -- and that Republicans were openly accepting the blame.
“I think he ran a very energetic race and certainly gave Booker worries,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren). “And if we didn’t have this all happening with the shutdown and everyone blaming the Republicans, I think he would have done even better.”
Lonegan came out just before 10 p.m. to concede defeat, thanking the crowd of about 250 in the ballroom of the Bridgewater Manor in Bridgewater for their work against the odds.
“Who would have thought a small-town mayor would come this close to a U.S. Senate seat,” he said.
“For whatever reason, the message we delivered with so much energy and so much passion did not win the day,” Lonegan continued, adding that he called Booker minutes before to congratulate him.
“I am hoping that God will be with him in the decisions he makes as he goes into the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.,” Lonegan added. "I said to myself, 'Who wants that job, anyway?'”
One of the first to greet Lonegan as he moved off the stage was Carolee Adams, president of New Jersey Eagle Forum. She said she whispered in his ear “God bless you.”
She said afterward that it was always an uphill battle in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 voters, especially with Lonegan’s brand of Republican politics on the right end of the spectrum.
“To get above that [registration] difference is a tough challenge,” Adams said. “I don’t think anybody could have done any better than he did as a conservative. His principles stayed strong throughout. In any other state, it would have been a cakewalk for Steve Lonegan.”
“Nevertheless, he carried the banner very well for conservative values in this state,” she said.
Campaign spokesman Will Gattenby said the preliminary results he had seen showed relatively close results in the suburbs, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the larger, more urban counties. And Booker’s 10-to1 money margin and his get-out-the vote effort in those counties proved a big advantage.
“We were 50, 60s and even 70s [percent] in a couple of counties where we needed to score that high,” he said. “It just wasn’t enough to offset the more urban counties, like Essex, Camden, where they clobbered us.”
Notable was the absence of the state’s Republican leadership at the event last night, with Doherty and state Assemblyman Michael Carroll (R-Morris) the only elected state officials in the crowd. The two are arguably the state Legislature’s most conservative members.
But there were no Republican legislative leaders to be seen. Also absent: anyone from the state’s Congressional delegation or Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet or inner circle. When Lonegan called out to thank Christie from the dais, there was only a smattering of applause and at least one cheer of “Where was Christie?”
“Short of putting up lawn signs, I don’t know what he could have done,” Lonegan said of the governor.
Still, his thanks to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who all endorsed Lonegan, drew loud applause.
Lonegan said the lack of support from others in the national GOP establishment didn’t help.
“We put together a phenomenal campaign over the last four months, and we came closer to winning this election than anyone ever expected,” he said. “The big Washington groups and consultants said we couldn’t win, and maybe if they had played a role in this election, we would have won.”
Lonegan said he would retire from politics after 20 years as mayor of Bogota, head of Americans for Prosperity New Jersey, and a twice-unsuccessful candidate for governor and now U.S. Senate.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” Lonegan said, briefly choking up with emotion. “And I believe that with you at my side, we have made a tremendous difference for the state of New Jersey.”