Steve Lonegan, who’s running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, said fellow Republicans had “guts” to shut down the federal government. He’d be happy, he says, if his epitaph proclaims him “the guy who dismantled the IRS.”
Lonegan, 57, embraced by Tea Party Republicans for opposing abortion and government surveillance, is running in a state that President Barack Obama carried by 17 percentage points in 2012. Polls show Lonegan gaining on Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- the Democrat he calls Obama’s “Hollywood stand-in” -- in the race to finish the term of Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. The winner must run again next year.
Their nine-week post-primary dash will conclude in an Oct. 16 special election. During that time, Booker, a darling of Wall Street executives and West Coast technology entrepreneurs, has raised $11.5 million, more than eight times Lonegan’s $1.36 million. Booker’s campaign, though, has suffered from accusations that he spends too much time out of state and is more focused on the national spotlight than on New Jersey.
“Part of Lonegan’s message has resonated with a subsection of white suburban voters, and maybe they’re out to let Booker know, ‘We’re still here,’” said Matt Hale, an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “Voters are looking at Booker and saying they aren’t going to anoint anyone.”
The race shows how a non-mainstream candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972 tightened a contest that just two months ago, had Quinnipiac University polling director Maurice Carroll saying that Booker can “start looking for a Washington apartment.” In an Aug. 7 poll by the Hamden, Connecticut-based school, Booker had a 25 percentage point lead over Lonegan among registered voters.
A Sept. 24 Quinnipiac poll of likely voters had Booker with a 12 point lead. Because the two surveys tallied different voting groups, they aren’t comparable. Still, the latest figures were “closer than expected,” Carroll said.
Booker, 44, a prolific Twitter user, has tried to portray himself as a new kind of politician who would bring change to Washington. His efforts to add development and reduce crime in New Jersey’s largest city lured investments from Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and hedge-fund managers including Bill Ackman and Leon Cooperman.
His campaign has faced questions from Lonegan about his record in Newark, stake in an Internet startup and frequent travels for speeches. Booker also found himself defending private messages he exchanged earlier this year with an Oregon stripper who revealed them, saying he communicates with people of all different lifestyles. His sexuality was also the subject of news stories. Booker, who is single and has never been married, has said he likes women. When asked this year about his sexual orientation, he declined to answer, saying it shouldn’t matter, the Washington Post reported in August.
While Booker focused on his own record early on, more recently he has increased attacks on Lonegan.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super-political action committee this week put $1 million into the race to tout Booker as a mayor who’s worked with both parties and business leaders to “get things done.” The ads come as the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1 continues amid a budget impasse. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Lonegan, who is legally blind, failed in bids for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 and for governor in 2005 and 2009. From 1996 to 2008 he was mayor of Bogota, a Democratic-leaning borough of 8,000 people six miles (10 kilometers) west of Manhattan. He used the job as a platform for smaller government, successfully suing the state in 2003 to require voter approval of bond sales.
In 2006, Lonegan gained national media attention when he demanded the removal of a Spanish-language McDonald’s Corp. billboard in town and pushed to make English its official language. That year he became state director of Americans for Prosperity, a small-government group funded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. He left that job in June to focus on his Senate bid.
The August primary and October special election for Lautenberg’s seat were scheduled by Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking re-election in November. Lonegan won the Republican primary with 79 percent of the vote. Whoever wins next week must run in 2014 when Lautenberg’s term expires.
Until recently, Booker was considered a shoo-in for the seat long held by Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat. A Rhodes Scholar and Yale University-educated lawyer who moved to Newark in 1996, he spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and helped lead its platform committee. Booker 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 government-assistance program.
Booker was endorsed by Obama, and several celebrities have given financial backing and campaign assistance, including Oprah Winfrey and actress Eva Longoria. The Star-Ledger of Newark, Philadelphia Inquirer and Asbury Park Press newspapers endorsed him. Lonegan has been endorsed by Christie, as well as U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Texas Governor Rick Perry and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“The choice for New Jerseyans is clear,” Lonegan said on Oct. 4 after the first of two debates. “The guy who’s going to go down and fight against big government and fight for individual liberty -- that’s me -- or the guy who’s going to join President Obama in his attack on our health care, the explosion of government, more corporate welfare and more government reliance.”
At an Oct. 1 campaign rally in Smithville, Lonegan told the crowd that Booker favored a $1.4 trillion tax increase on small business, sought higher welfare enrollment “on the backs of taxpayers” and supported domestic surveillance of phone and e-mail by the U.S. National Security Agency. Booker, he said, backed the Internal Revenue Service’s “abuse of power” and would “disarm every American.”
Booker said during the debate that government shouldn’t be combing through the records of citizens and that he supports limits on domestic spying. He told reporters afterward that Lonegan would “take what’s wrong with Washington right now and make it worse.” He called Lonegan an extremist who’s out of line with the moderate members of his own party.
“This is a really opportune time for this election,” Booker said. “Will New Jersey give an endorsement to the Tea Party and the hijacking of America’s federal government? Or will they say enough of this? Ultimately, it will be a referendum on the Tea Party in Washington.”
While Booker is winning with women, he and Lonegan are even in support from men, Quinnipiac found. A third of New Jersey registered voters say Lonegan is too conservative, while a similar percentage say Booker is too liberal.
Booker continues to enjoy a “comfortable lead,” Carroll said. Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and government at Montclair State University, said it’s not realistic to assume Lonegan will win in a state where voters prefer Republican candidates to come from the centrist mold.
Because it’s an unprecedented election on a Wednesday night in October, turnout is hard to call, Harrison said.
“My sense is not that we’re feeling an enormous amount of passion and enthusiasm for Lonegan’s campaign,” she said. “People are choosing an alternative to Booker, but probably when faced with the choice of going and voting for Steve Lonegan versus staying at home, you’re much more likely to see that support being very soft.”