With New Jersey’s unusual U.S. Senate primary election just 11 days away, it is clear that Gov. Chris Christie did runaway frontrunners Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan a huge favor by compressing the campaign into nine summer weeks when voters are thinking about beaches not ballots.
“After the long presidential campaign in 2012, a lot of people said, ‘Why don’t we do it the way they do it in England with a short six-week campaign season?’ Well, this summer, we got our wish, and the shortness of the campaign clearly benefited the front-runners,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Booker and Lonegan were able to start out with national fundraising networks, political consulting teams, and cadres of volunteers already on tap, and a huge lead in name recognition “in a race that gives challengers less time than usual to catch up,” Weingart noted.
Booker, the Newark mayor who is a national political celebrity, and Lonegan, the most prominent New Jersey conservative activist over the past decade, consistently show polling leads that would be the envy even of Chris Christie, who has to settle for a 30-point lead in his own general election race.
Booker showed backing from 49 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in a Monmouth University Poll. Booker’s support dwarfed the 12 percent for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and 8 percent for Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) — two congressmen who not only share virtually identical liberal voting records, but have overlapping political bases in central New Jersey — and 3 percent for Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who is running without the support of her political and real-life boss, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
Lonegan, meanwhile, was trouncing Dr. Alieta Eck, a physician who has never run for office, by a 62 percent to 5 percent margin in a Quinnipiac University Poll released July 9 that showed Booker with a similar lead as in the Monmouth survey.
Even more ominously, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute reported, the relatively small group of about 30 percent undecided in each party are more likely to vote for Booker and Lonegan because they will probably be the only names they recognize. That, of course, is if they bother to vote: As of Monmouth’s mid-July poll, 43 percent — or three out of every seven regular Democratic primary voters — didn’t even know that there was a U.S. Senate primary election being held on August 13.
“The one thing we don’t know is what the turnout level is going to be and who is going to vote, so we could be surprised on Election Night, depending on who turns out,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Things could get close if very few people vote.”
Murray, however, said Booker’s current overwhelming lead in the polls, coupled with his across-the-board advantages in money, organizational support, volunteer base, and advertising, makes it “tough for Pallone or Holt to get 20 percent, and if either of them got 25 percent, it would be an incredible showing.” Booker was rated favorably by 64 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the Monmouth Poll, while 65 percent to 76 percent of Democrats did not know enough about Pallone, Holt, or Oliver to even form an opinion about them.
Booker, who had $1.6 million in his campaign warchest when he announced in June, already has topped $8 million, which has enabled him to make major TV, radio, and web advertising buys. “Booker is on the air quite a bit, and he’s bought up practically every Google ad in New Jersey,” Murray pointed out. “All you see is ‘Booker, Booker, Booker.’ And in addition to his own money, he has independent expenditure groups coming in to get out the vote.”
Booker’s fundraising over the past seven weeks sent him surging past Pallone, who started the race with more than $3.7 million in his congressional campaign fund, and Holt, who had $800,000; neither Pallone nor Holt has reported significant additional fundraising or made TV ad buys in the weeks since the race began, although they could be saving their warchests for media buys in the last week to 10 days. Oliver didn’t even start trying to raise money publicly until after July 4.
It was Booker’s ability to raise money and his expected strength at the top of the Democratic ticket in November 2014 — when he would have to run again for a full six-year term — that Democratic officials found so appealing.
In one rapid-fire week in June, Booker won the endorsements of the Essex County Democratic leadership — much of which has endorsed Republican Christie in the governor’s race — then the seven South Jersey counties that fall within the political orbit of South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, whom Booker publicly defended against attacks by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union.
Bergen, the largest county in the state, followed with its endorsement of Booker on the same day as Passaic, whose chairman, John Currie, is personally staying neutral because he is also the state Democratic chair, and Hudson, which is no longer the center of Democratic political power it was historically, but is still one of the top Democratic vote producers. Union County Democrats, led by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), followed suit in late July.
Together, these 12 county political organizations account for two thirds of the Democratic primary vote, and while their chairmen cannot give Booker the usual party “line” atop the column of organization-backed candidates in the August 13 primary because only the four candidates can be on the ballot, their ability to turn out the vote is important in what is likely to be a historically low turnout for a U.S. Senate primary.
“The county endorsements matter because those well-organized political organizations have the bodies to get people to the polls, and that gives Booker a real institutional advantage over the others in a low-turnout election,” Dworkin said. “Essex and Hudson and Bergen and Passaic and the South Jersey counties can really marshal the votes if they put their minds to it.”
Booker is most likely already benefiting from a wave of early voting dominated by mail-in ballots from Camden County.
“The South Jersey folks knew they would have a tough time with the legislative races this year with Christie at the top of the ticket, so they went out and signed up all sorts of people for automatic mail ballots for the rest of the year,” Murray reported. “This was before Frank Lautenberg died and we suddenly had an August Senate primary. But there were 13,000 ballots being mailed to voters in Camden County alone, and all but 500 were signed up before this race was announced. So that helps Booker too.”
Against this organizational array, Pallone was able to win the backing of Democratic leaders in Middlesex and Monmouth counties — the backbone of the congressional districts he has represented over the past three decades — and neighboring Ocean counties. Together, the three counties account for just under 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Holt, meanwhile, marshaled the endorsement of his home county of Mercer, which makes up 4.5 percent of the Democratic vote.
The problem for Pallone and Holt is that both are better-known in the same central New Jersey counties because Holt, like Pallone, has also represented parts of Monmouth and Middlesex counties since his election in 1998. Either would have been a stronger candidate, and would quickly have emerged as the alternative to Booker in what would have essentially turned into a head-to-head race because of Oliver’s slow start and lack of money.
Pallone and Holt also share the same liberal ideological turf on education, healthcare, and labor issues, which has made both of them favorites of public employee unions like the NJEA, the Communications Workers of America, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
But with both Pallone and Holt in the race, the public employee unions took a pass on the Senate primary, even though Booker is a supporter of school vouchers and charter schools, and has angered Newark’s city government unions because of layoffs.
“The public employee unions could have provided the ground troops Pallone or Holt needed to turn out the vote on August 13, but they decided to sit out the race because they didn’t want to have to choose between the two, both of whom will still be in Congress if they lose,” Murray said. “If only one of them was in the race and he was down by 15 or 20 points to Booker, the unions would probably have gotten in and given it a shot. But with the two of them splitting the opposition vote, the unions know there’s no point and they’re sitting it out.”
The abbreviated nine-week primary campaign was also too short a time for Booker’s opponents to build an effective case against him as the frontrunner. “There was enough in there to question his record in Newark, but it would have looked like mud-slinging, and Pallone and Holt knew it,” Murray said. “Even though Booker is well-known, his support is wide and not necessarily deep on his job performance in Newark, but there was simply not enough time for them to make a case against him.”
That didn’t stop Oliver, who is close to the anti-Booker factions in Newark, from making attacks on Booker the centerpiece of her campaign. Oliver barely shows up in the Democratic primary poll at 3 percent and did not start campaigning until after the Legislature finished its work on the budget in late June.
Oliver is running without the support of DiVincenzo, the Essex County leader who brokered the deal with Norcross that put her in as Assembly speaker, and she has not said whether she will seek a third two-year term in the post for the 2014-2015 session. Her future leadership role in the Legislature, in any case, will be up to the top Democratic bosses, but Democratic legislative leaders from Hudson and Passaic counties are already angling for the post.
Lonegan’s race against Eck has received little attention, and their debate this week did little to differentiate the two, with Lonegan declaring that they agreed on virtually every policy issue. Lonegan’s overwhelming lead in the polls is insurmountable, political analysts agreed.
“Lonegan has such a conservative reputation, a committed base, and strong support from mainstream Republican leaders, and he has run statewide before so it’s hard to see how he could lose to a new candidate,” Weingart said.
“This is a typical New Jersey primary,” Murray agreed. “She’s an interesting candidate, but she has no money, no organization, no support, and she will do as well as those who have trod that path before her. Lonegan is already running against Booker, not her.”