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Booker-Lonegan Special Election Seen as Referendum on Shutdown Politics

U.S. Senate outcome also hinges on get-out-the-vote operation and what voters think of Booker, experts agree

booker lonegan debate

Today’s special U.S. Senate election between Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan is being touted by President Obama, national Republican leaders, and the candidates themselves as a referendum on the House Republicans’ decision to force a partial federal government shutdown and risk a first-ever federal debt default in an attempt to derail Obama’s Affordable Care Act and compel federal spending cuts.

But with an uncertain turnout expected in New Jersey’s first-ever Wednesday election and with Booker’s once-shimmering national brand tarnished by a series of self-inflicted gaffes and personal attacks by Lonegan, pollsters and political analysts say they won’t know until the election returns come in tonight how to read the message that voters are sending.

“It’s really not clear from the polling exactly what’s motivating voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “There are too many countervailing issues. You have the shutdown and Booker painting Lonegan as part of the problem, but Lonegan has been painting Booker -- assisted by Booker -- as someone motivated by his own ambitions.” Analysis is difficult in “a race that is so bizarre with a special election compacted into a short period.”

The unusual special election is being held on a Wednesday in mid-October because Republican Gov. Chris Christie wanted to keep Booker’s Senate candidacy off the November 5 ballot. That’s when Christie is running for reelection against underfunded Democrat Barbara Buono, who could have benefited from running with Booker at the top of the ticket and from the well-funded get-out-the-vote campaign that Booker showed off in his convincing August 13 primary win.

Booker has raised $11.2 million to Lonegan’s $1.35 million as of last count, giving him the same overwhelming money advantage that Christie enjoys over Buono. But the final weekend polls in the campaign vary wildly, with Murray’s Monmouth Poll and the Quinnipiac Poll showing Booker with similar 52-42 and 54-40 percent leads, while the last Rutgers University Eagleton Poll showed Booker ahead by a whopping 22 points at 58 percent to 36 percent.

The problem with polling this special election is that 10 percent of regular voters didn’t even know there was an election this week, much less that it was being held on a Wednesday, Murray noted. That’s why Obama’s web ad for Booker this weekend reminded voters five times that the election was being held on a Wednesday, not a Tuesday. A network newscaster got the date wrong last weekend, and the Christie campaign sent out a Twitter tweet urging Republicans not to forget to vote Tuesday.

In fact, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll last week found that only 64 percent of registered voters knew that a U.S. Senate election was being held. But that hasn’t stopped Lonegan, Booker, Obama, national Republican and Democratic leaders, and TV commentators from casting the race as a definitive referendum on House Republican tactics in forcing a federal government shutdown.

“A win in New Jersey on Wednesday, which we will have, will be ‘the shot heard around the world,’” Lonegan proclaimed at a rally with Sarah Palin in front of a big brown “Tea Party Express” banner Saturday. If Lonegan wins, he said, Obama and Democratic congressional leaders would be forced to “fold” their opposition. But if Booker wins, Lonegan warned, “the White House would parade that victory around the entire country as validation.”

Obama started to set the stage for that argument when he appeared in a weekend web ad for Booker. “New Jersey,” the president declared, “has the opportunity to send a message to the entire country about what kind of leadership we expect in Congress, that we’re better than the shutdown politics we’ve seen in Washington.”

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