When a liberal reporter asked Steve Lonegan if “Sarah Palin was too far-right for New Jersey,” Lonegan did what Republican candidates for Senate have not done in recent memory: He went on offense.
“I don’t think it’s far right to support small business owners and to support taxpayers who are struggling,” he shot back. “Sarah Palin is a wonderful mother. She was also a wonderful governor and an excellent role model for women.”
That’s not how Republicans coming out of the Northeast typically respond when they encounter a hostile reporter. And if you ask Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express, she will tell you that Lonegan’s blunt, rhetorical style is also out of place in Washington, D.C., where the party establishment appears set to cave in the fight over funding for Obamacare.
“We thought we could push the party to the right,” she said, addressing thousands of Lonegan supporters gathered at the New Egypt Speedway in Ocean County, New Jersey on Saturday. “But they can’t be pushed to the right. They are just go along to get along.”
Lonegan is running to fill the seat previously occupied by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a long-time Democratic incumbent who was first elected in 1982. After Lautenberg died in June, Gov. Chris Christie set a special election to fill the open seat that will be held today. Up until a few weeks ago, Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, enjoyed a substantial lead over Lonegan that ranged anywhere from 20 to 30 points. That lead has now collapsed according to every major poll, including those that oversample Democrats.
New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case in 1972. But during Saturday’s rally there was a palpable sense that Lonegan is within striking distance of a major upset.
“We are being outspent 12-to-1 but now we have polls that show the race within just a few points,” said one Lonegan campaign operative who asked not to be named. “If we do pull this off in a blue state, it sends a powerful message ahead of the 2014 elections. This election is winnable.”
This was the central message on Saturday. It’s what Palin, the former Republican governor of Alaska, and radio talk show host Mark Levin, told the crowd in New Egypt.
“Don’t believe the lame stream media,” said Palin. “They will say this is a lost cause and they will say that a bold, clear, commonsense conservative can’t win in New Jersey.”
“I don’t mean to confuse the media: This election is about the Constitution and our republic,” Levin said.
But even the media is beginning to see that Booker has lost his edge in a state where undecided, unaffiliated voters can make the difference in statewide elections, especially where there is low, concentrated turnout.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by about 700,000 voters, according to the latest registration figures. But the state is much more competitive than is commonly thought. The activist New Jersey Supreme Court rewrote an election statute in 2002 that made it possible for Democrats to steal the Senate race that year. Without the “Torricelli Switch,” Lautenberg would not have regained power and Republican Doug Forrester would have won.
That’s not the only example of a close, competitive election. Recall that in 2000, Jon Corzine did not win his Senate race in any kind of landslide. In fact, he almost lost to an obscure congressman, Bob Franks.
The operative word “almost” is why Diane Bagley Robb, a Hamilton resident, wants to know why Karl Rove and his organization American Crossroads have gone missing in New Jersey.
“The party establishment thinks you have to be RINO, and you have to be moderate to win,” she said. “But I know a lot of moderate Republicans who have lost in this state and in other parts of the country. But now we have a genuine conservative so where is the rest of the party?”
By that Robb means not just Rove, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which has previously missed out on opportunities to swing close elections in Jersey. She suspects these failings may be because party leaders in Washington, D.C. are not inclined to support genuine tea party advocates like Lonegan.
“You’ve got people like [Sen.] John McCain who keep calling us ‘wacko birds,’ but the Constitution is not a crazy document and neither is the Bill of Rights,” Robb said. “When you nominate a moderate the base stays home.”
Lonegan himself proudly identifies with the tea party, but he is quick to point out that his greatest asset is a “united Republican Party,” which is now well-positioned to score the upset.
“The tea party has made the Republican Party a more conservative party,” he told TAS. “But we are not the whole party. I’m very pleased and very grateful for the support I’ve been getting from everyone in our party from leadership on down.”
Despite all his financial advantages, Booker has been playing a lot of defense since Labor Day. That’s partly thanks to the heavy lifting of Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment, who continues to expose Booker’s poor performance in office on his BookerFail website.
Most recently, Booker has been called out by neighbors who maintain that he may not actually live in the Newark home he claims as an address. In September, Lonegan held a press conference in front of a neglected city home Booker previously owned that is now occupied by drug dealers, according to nearby neighbors. There are also tax returns that show Booker earned almost $700,000 from a law firm holding millions of dollars in government contracts while serving as mayor. That’s what you call a conflict of interest. Even the left-leaning Star Ledger is making hay out of drug dealers like “T-Bone,” who Booker supposedly befriended but may be a work of fiction.
Last night, the Lonegan campaign made one of its last stops at the same place where some of the candidate’s most ardent supporters first joined forces — at Leonardo’s II in Lawrenceville, which sits just a few miles outside of the capitol in Trenton.
“Here’s Lonegan at our little neighborhood restaurant, while Booker is out there in Hollywood with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, so who is really an advocate for New Jersey?” That question comes from Rob Pluta, the owner of Leonardo’s II.
That same point was raised in New Egypt.
“Steve Lonegan has been in Newark more than Cory Booker has,” Levin said at the tea party rally. “And the city didn’t even miss him [Booker].
If Lonegan wins in a close race, it will hopefully give wavering Washington Republicans a spinal transplant in upcoming budget fights. If Booker wins in a close race, he can forget about running for president and will need to steel himself for a tough fight when forced to run again next year.
Most importantly, neither side seems to be saying that the race isn’t close.