Booker, 44, had 59 percent of the vote, with 46 percent of precincts reported, according to a tally from the Associated Press, which declared him the winner. U.S. Representatives Frank Pallone, 61, and Rush Holt, 64, got 23 percent and 13 percent, respectively, while Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, 61, the first black woman to lead a legislative chamber in New Jersey, took 5 percent.
The frontrunner throughout the race, Booker will face Republican Steven Lonegan, 57, an unsuccessful 2009 candidate for governor, in an Oct. 16 election. The victor would face another campaign next year to retain the Senate seat. An Aug. 7 poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, had Booker beating Lonegan, 54 percent to 29 percent. State voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
“This is our victory -- thank you,” Booker told the 1.4 million followers of his Twitter Inc. account. “Please continue to run with me.”
A Rhodes Scholar and Stanford University and Yale Law School graduate, Booker grew up in the northern New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park. In 1996, he moved to Newark, where 26 percent of residents live in poverty, compared with 9.4 percent statewide. The city has struggled to recover from 1967 race riots that left 26 people dead and turned neighborhoods into ruins.
Booker won the mayor’s race in 2006 and again in 2010. His efforts to foster development and reduce crime have attracted investments from Facebook Inc. (FB) co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million to the city’s schools, as well as hedge-fund managers including Bill Ackman and Leon Cooperman.
The mayor gained national attention last year for saving a neighbor from a fire and for living on food stamps for a week to show the difficulty of relying on the federal aid program. Booker spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee.
The Senate primary race had been quiet until its final week, when Booker’s challengers took shots at his frequent speaking engagements outside Newark, his ties to Wall Streeters and his stake in Waywire LLC, an Internet startup he co-founded last year.
Booker’s campaign had reported earnings of $1.3 million from speeches, noting that he had given almost $620,000 to charity and paid $476,000 in taxes since 2008. He amended his Senate filing last month to reflect a $1 million to $5 million interest in Waywire, a New York-based company that runs a video-sharing website. He submitted a similar report to Newark officials Aug. 6, a week before the primary.
Booker’s campaign raised $8.6 million as of July 24, with donations of at least $10,000 from more than 150 people, including Zuckerberg and Christy R. Walton, the world’s richest woman. Pallone had $3.67 million in his accounts, mostly from the transfer of surplus congressional campaign funds. Holt reported $1.46 million on hand while Oliver had just $11,690.
Last-minute Booker donors included the leadership committees of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Senator Charles Schumer of New York, which gave $10,400 each. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey and actor Matt Damon also gave the maximum allowable $10,400 in the campaign’s final week, according to the Senate public records office.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said before polls closed that he expected about 1-in-10 of the state’s 1.8 million registered Democrats to cast ballots in the primary. Low turnout would favor the non-Booker candidates, who have a loyal following, Dworkin said.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 registered voters in New Jersey. Lonegan beat his primary candidate, Alieta Eck, a physician from Somerset, 80 percent to 20 percent, according to the AP tally.
Lonegan told his supporters in Secaucus that Booker was “annointed by Hollywood” and Silicon Valley executives. He cast himself as the champion of small-business owners and union workers.
“Cory Booker believes that Obamacare is not just good, but it is great,” he said. “He wants to force Obamacare down your throat.”
Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking a second term in November, set an August primary and October general election for the Senate seat after Lautenberg died in June of complications from viral pneumonia at age 89. Christie picked a temporary replacement, Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican who isn’t running.
While Christie said the schedule was made to fill the seat as quickly as possible, critics said it was designed to keep the popular Booker off the November ballot and help the governor’s own win margin. Christie led his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, by about 30 percentage points in recent polls.
“It will probably be the lowest turnout in modern history,” Dworkin said of the special Senate primary election. “It’s just a random day, with one race, in the middle of August.”
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