Murray and Weingart both credited Lonegan with running one of the best statewide campaigns in recent memory against a national celebrity candidate who was overwhelmingly favored to trounce him as easily in the general election as he defeated a pair of Democratic congressmen and the Assembly speaker in the primary.
“This was one of the best campaigns for messaging we’ve seen on the Republican side for a long time. Lonegan’s attack ads against Booker were some of the best-constructed attack ads I have seen in a long time,” Murray said.
Lonegan “hammered into doubts that voters had” not only about Booker’s performance in Newark, but also about whether he was running more for personal ambition than because he wanted to make a difference in Washington -- the same “workhorse vs. show horse” line that the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s son used against the Newark mayor he felt had pushed too hard to get his father to retire rather than seek reelection in 2014. Lautenberg died in office in June, prompting the special election.
Lonegan never varied from his conservative message and his focus on turning out conservative voters, assuming that it would be a low-turnout election -- an assumption that Murray questions, given Booker’s success in turning out a high Democratic primary vote on August 13. But that’s why he didn’t hesitate to bring in Palin last weekend, even though she has the highest negatives even among Republican voters of any national Republican leader, Murray pointed out.
Lonegan didn’t even suffer in the polls for his or his campaign’s rhetorical excesses. He called cities like Newark a “big black hole” and said during last week’s debate that Newark’s Passaic River is filled with the bodies of shooting victims, and he had to fire his chief political strategist Rick Shaftan for profane remarks questioning Booker’s sexuality, yet he didn’t drop at all in the polls.
Meanwhile, Booker, who looked invincible coming out of his August 13 primary win, has suffered from a series of stories that cut into his lead in the polls. It started with a Washington Post article in which he declined to discuss his sexuality, but confessed his fondness for late-night pedicures and manicures -- a comment that prompted Lonegan to say that he preferred a Scotch and a cigar. Stories about Booker’s Twitter friendship with a stripper at a vegan strip club in Oregon, and questions about whether some of the characters in his stories about Newark were real, composites or imaginary, soon followed.
Newark’s late August wave of murders contrasted with Booker’s argument that he had turned Newark around by bringing private investment into the city. Other stories focused on the number of days Booker spent away from the city making speeches or mixing with Hollywood celebrities or high-tech billionaires, some of whom partnered with him on a multimillion dollar high-tech venture he was forced to divest.
But most of all, Murray said, “Booker didn’t run a good campaign, he didn’t engage. New Jersey expects you to fight for your vote, even if you’re in line with the voters on the issues. He took it for granted, so now he had to fight back.”
That’s what Booker has been doing for the past two weeks, using the government shutdown to try to define Lonegan as an “extremist” and to underscore fundamental differences between them both on the issues and on how they would serve out the final year of Lautenberg’s term before running for a full six-year term in 2014.
“We’ll see how well they did when the numbers come in,” Weingart said. “If Lonegan wins, Christie looks like a genius for setting up a special election where the turnout would be low. But even if Booker wins, Lonegan has set himself up well to run again against Booker next year.”