New Jersey

"Vote Wednesday" is Usually a Joke, But Not Today in New Jersey

Well, maybe sort of a joke still


how local debates look

Democrat Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, and Republican Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota who ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2005 (losing to Doug Forrester) and 2009 (losing to Christ Christie), are facing off against each other today, Wednesday, in a special election for US Senate. Booker's been the favorite to win since Frank Lautenberg died. Before the senator's death, Booker had floated the idea of running in 2014 irrespective of whether Lautenberg was going to retire. The octogenarian Lautenberg wasn't pleased, pointing out Booker had "a lot of work to do" in Newark, "work that should have been done and hasn't been done."  After his death, Lautenberg's family campaigned against Booker but to no avail.

Booker has been the favorite for a reason: he's the only Democrat, possibly the only politician of either party not named Chris Christie, with the name recognition and money to contest a statewide election on such short notice. How did New Jersey get to this point, with a electoral schedule that limited the candidates who could credible compete and a special election date on a Wednesday? Chris Christie, that's how. When Lautenberg died Christie had several choices; conventional wisdom pointed to him either scheduling the election this year or making an appointment to serve out Lautenberg's term through 2014. Observers assumed an election scheduled this year would run concurrent to the gubernatorial race. But Chris Christie is looking to run his re-election margin of victory into the double digits by attracting Democrats, and didn't want to share top billing on the November ballot with another Republican. So he scheduled the special election as quickly as allowed by law, hence an election today.

Cory Booker may still be the favorite to win, but he's hardly run away with the thing. Faced with a relatively tightening margin, the Booker  campaign shifted into attack mode, attempting to label the fiscally conservative Steve Lonegan as a "Tea Party extremist," tired rhetoric from a campaign that was trying to make it on top through today. Lonegan, to Democrats' dismay, picked up on the criticism of Booker Lautenberg started when he was alive, that Newark was a "big black hole" that Booker, despite his popularity in the media, had not done much to improve. None of the three candidates for Newark mayor who have emerged so far to replace (or, should he lose, run against) Booker in 2014, have seen it politically valuable to try to position themselves as Booker's heirs. Their complaints about Newark; mainly about crime and a lack of jobs, are the same complaints Booker lodged when he ran unsuccessfully in 2002 and then successfully in 2006.

Booker's senate campaign, meanwhile, has been woefully lacking in policy detail. Booker's last campaign missive, sent at 3 in the morning today urging supporters to vote, ended with the line: "I believe in love. Because love is hope even when there is every reason to doubt and despair. Be hopeful and join with me today to vote." Lonegan, meanwhile, has focused his campaign on how he would serve in the Senate to provide a fresh challenge to Barack Obama's agenda. New Jersey voters, then, appear to have a choice between Booker and the "hope" he's selling or Lonegan and the "change" he would represent by not just being a yes-man for President Obama.

Lonegan would be the first Republican to win a Senate race since 1972. Booker, meanwhile, would be the first Newark mayor to win another office since William Fiedler was elected to Congress in 1882. He lost his re-election. Should Cory Booker win today, he'll likely face several challengers in his 2014 re-election bid, including other Democrats.