With Cory Booker piling up a landslide victory in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate last night, New Jersey’s Democratic leaders already were looking ahead — not to Booker’s October 16 special election contest with Republican conservative Steve Lonegan, which they assume he will win, but to what Booker could do to help the rest of the Democratic ticket 20 days later in the regular November election.
“Cory’s race is going to create great excitement and great momentum for Democrats heading into November,” Sen. Raymond Lesniak (R-Union) said after Booker piled up 59 percent of the vote in trouncing an unusually high-profile field made up of Rep. Frank Pallone, who finished second with 20 percent, Rep. Rush Holt, who got 17 percent, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who polled 4 percent.
“Cory’s going to mobilize a lot of new voters, and it will be very helpful to [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Barbara Buono’s operation to be able to fold Booker’s field operation into her’s. Obviously, it would have been more helpful to have Cory at the top of the Democratic ticket in November, but Gov. Christie wanted no part of that, so he went out and spent $24 million to hold two special Senate elections, which is why we’re here tonight,” Lesniak said, surveying the crowd outside Newark’s Prudential Center. “I still say he would have beaten Christie if he had run for governor instead.”
Booker showed a fund-raising prowess more than equal to Christie’s in raising more than $7 million in just seven weeks after the death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) led the governor to call the special Senate election.
The get-out-the-vote operation Booker modeled after President Barack Obama’s field operation may have been partly responsible for pushing up Democratic turnout to 360,000 yesterday — much higher than most pollsters and political experts predicted for a first-ever mid-August primary.
Booker’s fundraising advantage translated into an overwhelming advantage over his Democratic rivals in TV and radio advertising, and his celebrity and high name recognition gave him a decided edge in the two-month primary season — an advantage he will carry into his two-month general election race against the fiery Lonegan, the outspoken conservative activist who piled up 80 percent of the vote in defeating Dr. Alieta Eck in the GOP primary yesterday.
Lonegan, who raised just $222,000 in the first seven weeks of his campaign, was not dismayed by the prospect of running against Booker and his money machine, even though he will most likely get little more than an endorsement from Christie.
“Christie is worrying about how to win by big enough numbers in his own reelection to maintain his front-running status in the 2016 Republican presidential race,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “He doesn’t have time or inclination to worry about Lonegan.”
Booker did not mention Buono or Christie or the importance of reelecting a Democratic-controlled Legislature in a victory speech that stressed the need for a new bipartisanship in Washington as much as it drew distinctions between his own Democratic beliefs and Lonegan’s conservative Republican values.
But Democratic leaders are confident that Booker will be there campaigning and raising money for state races in the fall when it counts.
“Booker’s victory over Lonegan in October will give the party a big lift going into November,” said John Currie, the state Democratic chairman and veteran Passaic County leader. “He has emphasized that this is a team effort, and that he will do everything he can within the legal parameters to help the Democratic ticket” — a tacit admission that Booker could face legal hurdles turning over a get-out-the-vote operation created and funded for a federal election for use in a state race.
Having Booker campaigning on the same issues that Buono and Democrats are emphasizing also helps, party leaders said.
“Cory’s victory is good for New Jersey because Cory Booker is a senator who would support an increase in the minimum wage, pay equity, a woman’s right to choose, and a Supreme Court that supports Roe v, Wade,” Buono said. “Cory and I have been talking together about the race ahead, we’re all going to pull together for Cory in October and then we will pull together to win the Statehouse for the Democrats in November.”
While Booker may not be able to do much to help Buono close her 30-point gap against Christie in the polls, “Booker could spend a lot of time campaigning in South Jersey and other vulnerable legislative districts, and signing people up to vote by mail for both his race and the November campaign,” Murray said. That could be important if Christie wins by 25 points or more — the point at which he believes Christie’s coattails could threaten marginal Democratic legislative seats.
Booker, whose consistent 30 point-plus lead in the polls over Pallone and Holt stood up in yesterday’s election, led Lonegan by 25 percent in last week’s Quinnipiac Poll.
“You’re going to have a middle-of-the-road Democrat in Cory running against an unabashedly, unashamedly Far Right candidate,” Lesniak said. “We couldn’t have a better matchup in a state like New Jersey.”
Booker managed to run as a middle-of-the-road Democrat without paying a price in the Democratic primary because his two chief rivals, Pallone and Holt, boasted virtually indistinguishable liberal voting records, and their equally consistent support for organized labor led the state’s major public employee unions to sit out the race, even though they intensely dislike Booker.
“If either Pallone or Holt had been the only one running — and it didn’t matter which one did — the NJEA [New Jersey Education Association], CWA [Communications Workers of America] and the other unions might have gotten in, and poured money and volunteers into a campaign against Booker,” Murray said. “It would still have been uphill, but the unions would have taken their shot, and it would certainly have made it a closer race.”
With the unions sitting out the race, Pallone and Holt, neither of whom could come close to Booker in name recognition, were reduced to regional candidates, with Pallone carrying his home county of Monmouth and matching up closely with Booker in Middlesex and Ocean, and Holt carrying his home county of Mercer as well as nearby Hunterdon. Oliver’s 4 percent showing was not surprising given her lack of money and organizational support from her home county of Essex.
Booker’s biggest Achilles heel heading into the Democratic primary was his open support for such Christie-backed initiatives as school vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers, as well as for the controversial pension and health benefits law pushed through by Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
But Booker deftly did his best to turn that potential vulnerability into a strength by waging a post-partisan campaign based upon the assertion that he could bring to Washington’s partisan gridlock a new spirit of compromise and bipartisanship that he learned how to make work in New Jersey.
It is a theme very similar to Christie’s heavily covered national policy speeches touting his bipartisan successes in New Jersey, and parts of Booker’s acceptance speech yesterday could just as easily have been delivered by Christie.
Decrying the partisanship and hopelessness in Washington, Booker declared , “If you make me your senator, New Jersey, I will be focused on finding common ground. The direction I will be most concerned with will not be right or left, but going forward.”
Vowing not to be bound by convention, Booker asserted, “If you want somebody to go to Washington who’s going to play by the same old rules, find somebody else . . . I won’t care about red or blue, I won’t care about an insider’s game, I will care about you.”
Drawing the same contrast with Lonegan’s fierce conservatism that he did in the primary with the committed liberalism of Pallone and Holt, Booker said there is “a politics that says compromise is a dirty word and bipartisanship is as rare as a rainbow at midnight. I know my opponent [Lonegan] has strong beliefs and stronger rhetoric.”
“Know this about me,” he told the crowd. “I will match his negative attacks with positive vision. If he pulls up his fists, I will extend my hand. He wants to be a flamethrower, I want to be a bridge builder. But I cut my teeth in Newark. If he demeans a woman’s equality, I will affirm it. If he seeks to lower our gay brothers and sisters to second-class status, I will elevate them. If he attacks our cities and urban spaces, I will defend them.”
Booker laid out a policy agenda that included increasing the minimum wage, making the tax code fairer, ensuring pay equity for women, making New Jersey more economically competitive, reducing child poverty, reforming the criminal justice system, legalizing gay marriage, protecting abortion rights, protecting Medicare and Medicaid from cuts, and investing in infrastructure and in research and development.
Overall, it is a liberal policy agenda that Lonegan can’t wait to attack.
“The differences between Booker and myself could not be clearer,” Lonegan declared at his victory rally in Secaucus last night. “He wants to force Obamacare down your throats. I will vote and work hard to defund and repeal Obamacare.”
“I believe in America . . . without the government in our way,” he said.
Lonegan also launched a class-oriented attack against Booker’s celebrity and wealthy backers that is more commonly made by liberal Democrats against conservative Republicans.
“Booker has the money and support of Silicon Valley moguls,” Lonegan sniped. They have their “martini glasses up. They have not been to New Jersey before. They do not know what a real street fight is. They are going to find out fast,” he vowed.
He derided Booker as a candidate “anointed by Hollywood,” who “descended from the heights of the Hollywood Hills,” then quoted Hollywood’s most famous — and most conservative — politician:
“Ronald Reagan said we are just one generation away from losing our freedom. We are that generation,” Lonegan said. “We need to embrace small business, not big government. Embrace free enterprise, not entitlement [and] big debt.”
“We must work hard to uphold that Bill of Rights — so many died for our freedom — not watch it be dismantled,” he said, then quoted Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death!”