Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker will face Republican Steven Lonegan, who has lost previous campaigns for New Jersey and national office, in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg.
Booker, 44, beat two congressmen and the state Assembly speaker in yesterday’s primary to win his party’s nomination. He will face Lonegan in an Oct. 16 special election. Booker is favored to defeat Lonegan, a 57-year-old former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009 and 2005, and for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998.
The frontrunner throughout the race, Booker got 59 percent of the Democratic vote yesterday. Should he win in October, he would face another campaign next year to retain the seat. An Aug. 7 poll by Quinnipiac University had Booker beating Lonegan, 54 percent to 29 percent in a theoretical matchup. State voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
“You’ve got a guy with national name recognition who can get a higher-than-expected turnout in an August primary, and can raise boatloads of money against an opponent who’s painted himself into a corner as a social conservative,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, said at Booker’s celebration. “That’s a recipe for a big win for Cory Booker.”
With 96 percent of precincts reported, Booker got 59 percent of the vote, according to a tally from the Associated Press. U.S. Representatives Frank Pallone, 61, and Rush Holt, 64, got 20 percent and 17 percent, respectively, while Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, 61, the first black woman to lead a legislative chamber in New Jersey, took 4.3 percent.
The mayor said he would work for marriage equality, women’s health care, tax-code reform and economic growth. He referred to his early days in Newark, as a “20-something” lawyer taking on cases for the poor, and said he would bring that work ethic to Congress.
“In Washington, so many people focus on right and left,” Booker said in a victory speech to supporters. “But here in Newark, here in New Jersey, we’re concerned about one direction, and that’s moving forward.”
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 was quiet until its final week, when Booker’s rivals 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.
Lonegan told his supporters in Secaucus that Booker was “anointed 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, referring to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “He wants to force Obamacare down your throat.”
Lonegan beat his primary candidate, Alieta Eck, a physician from Somerset, 80 percent to 20 percent, according to the AP tally. Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 registered voters in New Jersey.
“He’s a person of strong beliefs as I’ve found out and even stronger rhetoric,” Booker said of Lonegan. “‘I will match his negative attacks with positive vision. If he wants to be a flamethrower, I’ll be a bridge builder.”
Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking a second term in November, set an August primary and October special 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 didn’t run.
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.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, had predicted before polls closed that primary turnout might be the lowest in modern history because of its August timing. Low turnout would favor the non-Booker candidates, who have a loyal following, he said.
With 93 percent of precincts reporting, a total 331,067 Democrats cast votes. That was more than double the number of Democrats who had voted for Governor Jon Corzine, the incumbent seeking re-election, in the 2009 primary.
Murray, of the Monmouth University polling center, said turnout among Democratic voters was higher than anticipated, to Booker’s advantage. He said Booker was “cruising to victory” in October.
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