LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case in 1972 and he was not what you would call a Reagan Republican. In fact, Case compiled one of the most liberal voting records of any senator in his time. He was unseated in 1978 after losing in the Republican primary to Jeffrey Bell, a long-time, anti-tax, conservative activist.
Bell’s name resonates with some of the party members gathered here at Leonardo’s II in Lawrenceville. They fondly recall his Reaganesque challenge to the GOP establishment. But they are up against some hard realities on very tough political terrain. In many ways, Case is still their senator. His progressive politics hold sway with both major parties in the state.
So when some of the most conservative members of the N.J. GOP are told that Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, “is too liberal for New Jersey,” they can only hope that’s true. That’s the message Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of the northern town of Bogota, brings with him to a fundraiser for his campaign. Polls show that he remains a heavy underdog to Booker, a well-known public figure with a rising national profile. Still, Booker has been playing a lot of defense since Labor Day.
He stands accused of telling some tall tales even the liberal media now questions. While he was living in Brick Towers, a public housing project located in Newark’s Central Ward, Booker claims he befriended a drug dealer known as T-Bone. But no one can find T-Bone, who supposedly threatened Booker’s life and then later broke down and sobbed on Booker’s shoulders. Clement Price, a Rutgers University history professor, has told members of the press that Booker confessed to him that T-Bone is a fictional figure. That’s why National Review and other publications are questioning the veracity of a separate story Booker has told about Wazn Miller, a teenage shooting victim, whom he claims died in his arms.
After city officials were slow in responding to an Open Public Records Act request, NR sued to obtain police records that contradict Booker’s version of events. The image of urban renewal Booker continues to promote in his public statements took another hit last week when Lonegan held a press conference in front of a Newark townhouse Booker purchased in 2009. The abandoned property, which was hit by a fire March 2012, has become open to squatters and drug dealers, according to neighbors. Booker recently sold the property.
So the idea that Booker is an urban crusader devoted to inner-city renewal has been taking some serious hits. Still, by itself, that’s not enough to shift the election.
“Booker would have to make a really significant mistake for it to cut into the 15-20 point lead he has maintained,” Ben Dworkin, a political science professor with Rider University, said. “But Lonegan is running a very aggressive campaign. He’s a principled guy with a strong tea party following.”
During his 12 years as mayor, Lonegan earned a reputation for fiscal conservatism by cutting municipal spending, merging departments, and privatizing town services. Before running for Senate, he served as state director of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) where he led several successful fights against tax hikes. He also challenged Christie in the 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary. But whatever differences they may have had previously, their interests now converge. By joining forces with Lonegan now, Christie can only help himself in 2016, Dworkin says.
“The governor wants to run for president and he’s going to need tea party support,” Dworkin said. “So now he can show up in Iowa and say he supported a tea party candidate and not just as a matter of convenience. Christie cleared the way early for Lonegan and did not back any other Republican candidate. Everything Christie does now is with a 2016 calculus.”
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. As of August, Lonegan reportedly had about $150,000 cash on hand for his efforts in comparison to the $6.5 million that has been raised on the Democratic side since January, according to campaign officials. After Lautenberg died in June, Christie set a special election for October 16 to fill the open Senate seat. The governor is expected to cruise to an easy re-election win just a few weeks later on November 5.
Back at Leonardo’s II, I ask Lonegan about the fundraising advantage on the other side and why Jersey Republicans have been so unsuccessful in their Senate campaigns.
“I don’t need to outspend my opponent,” Lonegan says, a few minutes before addressing a crowd of hard-core supporters. “I just need to be able to spend enough to get my message out.”
Still, it’s difficult to overstate Booker’s advantage. On September 23, Hollywood actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are set to co-host a fundraiser for the Newark mayor at the California home of Ron Burkle, the billionaire owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Other co-hosts include Jennifer Garner, Jerry Weintraub, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Eisner. Tickets range from $1,000 to $10,000. By injecting themselves into the New Jersey race, Hollywood has provided Republicans with some effective talking points.
Lonegan brings down the house by telling his supporters that “we don’t need a third U.S. senator from California, and we don’t need Hollywood telling us how to run our state.” But even without Hollywood, there are inherent disadvantages for a candidate like Lonegan. Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by about 700,000 voters, according to the latest registration figures.
So what about the other part of that question? Are Republican Senate candidates unelectable in the Garden State? Lonegan insists he can win and reminds everyone that the GOP has actually been quite competitive and successful in the state's gubernatorial races. Moreover, the congressional delegation is more or less evenly split, with only a slight advantage to the Democrats. So couldn't the GOP win one of those Senate seats? They have come close. The state supreme court maneuvered Lautenberg back into power by way of the “Torricelli Switch” in 2002 -- as in the Democrats stole the election. It’s also worth recalling that Jon Corzine did not win the Senate by any landside in 2000. Despite all his financial resources, he almost lost to an obscure Republican congressman when he ran for Senate in 2000. Prior to that, Christine Todd Whitman, who later became governor, almost upset Sen. Bill Bradley in 1990.
Back at Leonardo’s II, Vanessa LaFranco, president of the New Jersey Republican Federation of Women, wonders if a small, concentrated turnout might not be enough to put Lonegan over the top. “We are in a very odd, unconventional election,” she said. “Turnout matters.”
Foster Lowe, a Republican candidate for an assembly seat in Bergen County, agrees. “With the election on a Wednesday, and not a Tuesday, who knows what can happen,” he said.
Dworkin, the political science professor, is not so sure.
“If Booker was not Booker and had no name recognition and did not have several million dollars for his campaign, then you could make a case that a low turnout could be trouble for him,” Dworkin said. “But he’s not a nobody and he’s not underfunded. I suspect he can overcome the challenges of a low turnout.”
Christie held a fundraiser for Lonegan in Monroe Township last Thursday. By separating out the U.S. Senate race from his own re-election effort, Christie will likely sidestep what could have been a higher Democratic turnout in November. But how his actions will sit with conservatives who will be a force in the 2016 presidential primary is an open question, especially since he could have just appointed Lonegan to fill out Lautenberg’s term. This would have given Lonegan an electoral advantage he doesn't have now.
I suspect he’ll be asked about this when he attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) next year.