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Booker-Lonegan Special Election Seen as Referendum on Shutdown Politics

It is an argument that Booker has made the centerpiece of his campaign for the 15 days since the partial government shutdown began, charging that Lonegan is a prime example of “Tea Party extremism,” who would “make Washington worse” by backing the conservative House Republican who forced the shutdown.

And it is an argument that Lonegan reinforces by praising Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who sparked the House Republican insurgency, and urging conservative Republicans in Congress to “hold the line” in its effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act -- against which Lonegan waged a grass-roots campaign in New Jersey when he served as executive director of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group bankrolled nationally by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The national news focus on the 15-day government shutdown, tomorrow’s debt-ceiling deadline, and the high-stakes showdown between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have both taken voter attention away from the U.S. Senate race and provided an opportunity for Booker to emphasize his theme of the need for a politics of compromise -- a message he underscored at a joint appearance with Christie – as opposed to the politics of confrontation that Lonegan overtly favors.

Murray and John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute, agreed that it would be hard to assess the impact of the shutdown until after the election.

“We (the Monmouth University Poll) have Booker at 10 points, Quinnipiac at 14,” Murray noted. “If he ends up winning by 20 points or more, then, yes, it’s voters rejecting the Tea Party.”

“If Lonegan wins or comes close, it will certainly be portrayed as voters agreeing with him, and that would be plausible given that his views on so many major issues are out of step with New Jersey voters,” Weingart said, referring to Lonegan’s outspoken opposition to abortion, gay marriage, stiffer gun control laws, the Affordable Care Act, and raising the minimum wage.

But if Booker’s margin is closer to the 10 to 14 points that the Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls were showing, the result probably has more to do with the campaigns that Booker and Lonegan waged than with voter anger or support for the national politics of the government showdown, political experts agreed.

“It’s a New Jersey habit electing Democrats to the Senate,” Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said, referring to the state’s 41-year history of failing to vote a Republican into the U.S. Senate.

“The liberal mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, holds onto the double-digit lead over the conservative former mayor of Bogota, Steve Lonegan, that we measured when we first looked at likely voters,” he said yesterday after releasing a poll that showed Booker holding a substantial 58 percent to 36 percent lead over Lonegan among women and a narrow 45-40 lead among men, with independent voters and white voters evenly split between the two candidates.

Weingart said Lonegan’s performance is surprising considering that New Jersey Republicans usually run candidates who are in the liberal to moderate wing of the GOP. “Lonegan is the first New Jersey statewide candidate who fits comfortably in the right wing of the Republican Party nationally, and he is the first who does not think compromise is a necessary part of governing,” Weingart said, adding that this year’s campaign contrasted sharply with the relative “civility and bipartisanship” that characterized last year’s race between Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his GOP challenger, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).

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