Workhorse or show horse? Media star or back-bencher? Liberal or post-partisan? Reliable Democrat or willing to cross the aisle?
Short catchphrases sum up the differences between the four high-powered Democratic candidates running in the shortest U.S. Senate primary campaign in New Jersey history, which will conclude tomorrow with a unique mid-August election likely to set a record for low turnout in a contested statewide primary.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the show horse, the post-partisan media star, adored by Wall Street, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and Oprah Winfrey, chalking up his close relationship with Republican Gov. Chris Christie as a positive example of his willingness to work across the aisle. Backed by virtually all of the state’s most influential party leaders, Booker has been the runaway frontrunner in every poll in what has quickly developed into a three-against-one race.
Booker’s three opponents -- Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) – are more traditional liberals campaigning on traditional Democratic themes, unknown nationally and even to most New Jersey voters, promising to shoulder the workhorse role of the late Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate, and questioning Booker’s willingness to do the same.
“It’s more a difference of style, the issues they would emphasize and the kind of U.S. senator they would be,” John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said in summing up the race. “You don’t see any great difference between Holt and Pallone on the issues. In temperament and in their campaigns, you hear Booker being more open to compromise and working with Republicans, and Holt and Pallone articulating more traditional Democratic positions.”
Similarly, Oliver, running without the support of -- and apparently independent of -- Essex County political boss and Christie ally Joseph DiVincenzo, is campaigning as a traditional Essex County Democratic liberal, not mentioning her role as Assembly speaker rounding up votes for Christie’s controversial pension and health benefits bill.
As much as Booker seeks to make a virtue out of his willingness to work with Republicans, the differences between the four Democratic candidates pale in comparison to the ideological gulf that separates them from Republican Steve Lonegan, the unabashed conservative who headed the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the grassroots organization founded by the Koch Brothers, and his unknown challenger, Dr. Alieta Eck.
“You are looking at the most clearcut ideological choice since Jeff Bell ran against Bill Bradley,” Weingart said, referring to the 1978 race when Bradley, the recently retired New York Knicks star, handily defeated Bell, a young conservative ideologue who had shocked heavily favored U.S. Sen. Clifford Case, a liberal Republican, in the GOP primary.
“The conventional wisdom has been that for a Republican to be elected statewide in New Jersey, you have to be moderate and pro-choice. Then Chris Christie didn’t follow that model and didn’t adhere to it as governor,” Weingart noted. “But with an election being held in October on a Wednesday, it’s hard to see how someone so clearly in step with the national Republican party could win against an attractive Democratic candidate and a united Democratic Party. In New Jersey, a united Democratic Party vs. a united Republican Party is not an even match.”