The winner of New Jersey’s special U.S. Senate election today faces an almost immediate start to a second campaign to capture a full six-year term, even as he learns his role as Washington’s newest lawmaker.
If the victor is Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the frontrunner, he’ll have an incumbent’s edge for the November 2014 race in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. He’ll also be familiar to voters, with about 60 percent of Democrats backing him in a four-way August primary election. He went on to weather racial and homophobic attacks from the campaign of Steve Lonegan, his Republican opponent.
Booker, 44, would have to make quick headway on his pledges -- including defending President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and advocating for stricter gun laws -- in a capital where years of partisan rancor preceded an Oct. 1 partial government shutdown. He also may be recruited by party leaders to spread his fundraising net, introducing Senate colleagues to executives that have given millions of dollars to his campaigns.
“Just because he’s there doesn’t mean he’s automatically a rock star,” said Matt Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. “He’s got to show he’s got some of the skills and the gravitas to be a player in the Senate.”
Urged by party leaders to challenge Republican Governor Chris Christie’s re-election bid, Booker chose to declare in December his intent to explore seeking the seat long held by Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who hadn’t made his plans known at that point. Two months later, Lautenberg, 89, said he wouldn’t run again in 2014. He died in June from pneumonia.
Christie, seeking a second term in November, appointed Jeff Chiesa, the state’s Republican attorney general, as an interim replacement and set the special-election schedule. The winner will finish Lautenberg’s fifth term, which ends in January 2015.
The schedule set by Christie generated criticism from Democrats who said today’s vote would cost the state $12 million to conduct and was politically motivated. The governor defended it as needed to quickly replace Lautenberg.
Booker, since announcing his candidacy, has raised at least $11.5 million compared with Lonegan’s $1.36 million. The mayor’s campaign gave backers a letter specifying that any money beyond the $2,600 donation limit would be allotted to races through November 2014, when he would be up for re-election if he wins.
Booker said during an Oct. 14 campaign stop in Atlantic City that he’s “not looking to get elected and start campaigning.”
“I’m looking forward, God willing, to be elected and start working for people,” Booker said. “If I win Wednesday, on Thursday I’m going to start the job. The best way to campaign is just put your head down, do your job, serve people and help people.”
The shutdown and talks over the debt-ceiling issue make it hard to determine when today’s winner will be seated, said Jennifer Duffy, who follows the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. Neither campaign nor the state have set an official swearing-in date. While Senate Democrats, who control the chamber, may seek to expedite Booker’s arrival if he wins and they need him for a particular vote, they also may need to delay seating him in favor of standoff negotiations.
Whatever the timetable, Booker’s path -- “get on a committee, say the right things” -- is predictable, should he win, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. He follows U.S. House of Representatives and Senate elections.
“He’ll make noises as if he’s participating in the process,” Rothenberg said. “He’s not going to achieve anything. He’s the most junior member of the Senate, which is ruptured along party lines.”
Lonegan, 57, who was mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, for 12 years and ran unsuccessfully once before for a House seat and twice for governor, has said this campaign would be his last. Should Lonegan lose, state senators Tom Kean Jr. from Westfield and Joseph Kyrillos from Middletown could be potential 2014 Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Hale and Rothenberg said. Both politicians have previously run unsuccessfully for a seat in the chamber.
Kean didn’t respond to messages left by telephone and e-mail seeking comment on 2014, while Kyrillos didn’t respond to a telephone call on the subject.
Christie, 51, was the first Republican elected as New Jersey’s governor since 1997. He led his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono of Metuchen, by 24 percentage points in a survey released Oct. 15 by the Monmouth University polling institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
Still, New Jersey leans Democrat. Obama carried the state by almost 18 percentage points in his re-election last year. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 700,000. Voters with no affiliation exceed either party’s members.
That Republicans backed Lonegan, a Tea Party favorite whose anti-abortion, anti-immigration views run counter to those held by most New Jerseyans, demonstrates the lack of an “800-pound Republican gorilla” to take on Booker, Rothenberg said.
The mayor led Lonegan by 10 percentage points in a Monmouth University survey released Oct. 14, down from a 16 point margin in August. The Democrat faced questions from the Republican about his record in Newark, his stake and role in an Internet startup based in New York and frequent travels for speeches.
Rick Shaftan, a top aide to Lonegan, drew criticism to the campaign on Oct. 11 when the Internet site Talking Points Memo quoted him using crass language to suggest that Booker, who is single, is homosexual. The interview was published a day after the death of Booker’s 76-year-old father, Cary Booker Sr., who had Parkinson’s disease. Shaftan was fired.
In August, a Lonegan staffer used the campaign’s Twitter Inc. Internet account to liken neighborhoods in Newark, which is 52 percent black, to Afghanistan, Guyana, West Africa, Trinidad and Portugal. Booker’s campaign called the post “inappropriate and offensive.”
Should the Democrat win the Senate seat, the Newark Municipal Council’s president, currently Luiis Quintana, would take over as interim mayor, with an election for the top City Hall job to be held in May.
Duffy, of the Cook report, said the special election results will shape Booker’s role in national races next year.
“It depends on the margin --- if it’s pretty comfortable then I don’t think Booker will have to pivot right back into campaign mode,” she said. In that case, she said, Senate leaders would “like him to start raising money for the party and for candidates right away.”
If the results are closer than anticipated, Booker will need to learn why Lonegan made inroads. She didn’t offer a view on what he might do if he loses the election.
“The marching orders are going to be: Pay attention to the home front and do some re-engineering of the campaign,” she said. “The hope of making him a surrogate and fundraiser for the party will be on hold.”