How poorly is Cory Booker's Senate run in New Jersey going? The high-profile but low-impact Democratic mayor of Newark is struggling against Republican former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. The two are squaring off in a special election on October 16 to replace late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
As The New York Times reports,
The Senate campaign Mr. Booker, a Democrat, is running in New Jersey — at times sputtering, unfocused and entangled in seemingly frivolous skirmishes over Twitter messages involving a stripper — has unnerved his supporters, who thought that a robust and unblemished victory over his Republican opponent, Steve Lonegan, would catapult him onto the national stage.
As his allies move to shore up what was supposed to be a painless path to Congress, the biggest and wealthiest of them, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will start spending more than $1 million on Monday to broadcast television commercials on Mr. Booker’s behalf, a vast sum to pour into a single candidacy.
Remember that $1 million cash infusion from Billionaire Bloomberg the next time liberals start bitching about money in politics (the subject of yet another huge Supreme Court case).
Most polls still show a 12-point or 13-point advantage for Booker, who used to have a 35-point lead. An internal pollster for Lonegan says a recent poll shows a three-point spread (for what that's worth). Whether Lonegan is pulling close enough for a long-odds upset or not, the race is clearly much tighter than expected. As the director of polling at Monmouth University told the Times, "This should be a 20-point lead and not anything less than that."
Why are things going this way? For all of Booker's charm and geniality, his supporters have trouble pointing to any sort of substantive policy success. As the Times' summarizes things:
Under his watch, Newark has attracted new businesses like Pitney Bowes, a mail management company, and out-of-town largess from wealthy tech leaders, like the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. But Mr. Booker raised taxes, and violent crime has remained largely unabated.
Although Booker is about the only under-60 Democrat who seems to excite younger voters nationally, he's also redefining what it means to be an empty suit. He's gotten money from Hollywood types, has engaged in odd Twitter exchanges with strippers, and has also cut ties with a start-up after the association became an "embarrassment" to him (that's the Times' word).
But surely part of the reason the race is at least a bit too close for comfort is Lonegan (whom I've met briefly). In a state that has among the highest state-and-local tax burden in the country and where unemployment is high, folks are responding to blunt talk about out of control spending. Lonegan is the former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey (1997-2007) and the former head of the Garden State chapter of Americans for Prosperity. He's probably best-known for pulling 42 percent against Chris Christie in the 2008 GOP primary for governor. On the fiscal side, he's a hard-core cut-government-type who can point to a strong record as mayor. On the social side, he's a dicier proposition from a libertarian perspective (he's anti-abortion under all circumstances, once pushed to make English the official language of Bogota, and is a grudging acceptor of gay rights). He's pulled endorsements from Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul, among others. Like Christie, he's a real Jersey-style brawler who dishes out statements such as
“Mayor Booker issued a tweet mourning someone’s passing. But it wasn’t the two men shot dead in Cory Booker’s Newark on Friday night. It was Michael Ansara, the Klingon from Star Trek.”
He also said that New Jersey shouldn't have taken federal aid after Hurricane Sandy. Depending on how much Superfund-infused New Jersey water you drank growing up, that can either be attractive or off-putting. But in a New York Times piece in late August, the Times said Lonegan comes across as "a younger, more New Jersey-esque version of Ron Paul: formal, serious, not so much flamethrower as simply annoyed."