There’s a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey this year, but it might be hard to tell if you’re watching for campaign ads on TV or looking for national media coverage.
That’s because there really isn’t much to speak of.
Polls have shown the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, with a double-digit lead over his Republican challenger, Rik Mehta. Pundits have predicted there’s little likelihood of the charismatic former Newark mayor losing to Mehta, a political newcomer with an accomplished background including a law degree and a doctorate in pharmacy.
There are no Senate ads running on broadcast stations in Philadelphia or New York — markets that capture New Jersey — for or against either candidate, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s records. Nonpartisan political ratings organizations count New Jersey firmly in the Democrats’ column.
Even so, voters looking closely at both top-party candidates will find a lot of contrasts.
Booker is a well-recognized figure, whose failed run in the most recent Democratic presidential primary had him under the national spotlight for months. Mehta is new to the political game and is the founder of biopharmaceutical firms. He lives in traditionally Republican Morris County with his wife and three children, while Booker lives in the Democratic stronghold of Newark in Essex County, with his partner, actor Rosario Dawson.
Booker has about $3.5 million cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission, while Mehta has about $18,000. Those figures are through June 30, with more recent data expected next month. Those figures are low compared to the most closely contested races, where tens of millions of dollars is being spent, and helps explain why there’s less advertising that voters are used to.
Booker is unabashedly liberal; Mehta said in an interview he won’t distance himself from President Donald Trump, who isn’t popular in New Jersey.
“I would describe myself as pretty unapologetically Republican,” he said. He added that he’s “completely happy with the direction the president has taken this country, especially before the pandemic.”
Unlike six years ago, when Booker was running for his first full term after winning a special election in 2013, he has landmark legislation to point to this year. He was a top sponsor of the First Step Act, which Trump signed in 2018. The criminal justice overhaul gave judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders. It also boosted prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
It’s something he’s put at the center of his re-election campaign, pointing to the bipartisan nature of the new law.
“Even in the face of unprecedented division, I was able to lead Congress forward to pass into law, with bi-partisan support, historic reforms to our criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.
The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also brings another high-profile issue to the forefront. Booker, in a speech on the Senate floor, eulogized her as a giant of American history. He also lamented the Republican-led Senate’s vow to press ahead with Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
Booker equated the appointment of a new Trump pick to the court to a likely fatal blow for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“If it is the final year of President Trump’s term, we should wait until after the election before we put someone on the highest court in the land for a lifetime appointment. What is this about? It is about the most sacred ideals of our nation — life, liberty, freedom from fear, freedom from disease,” he said.
Mehta said he would “absolutely” vote for a Trump nominee were he in the Senate now.
Mehta’s run follows that of former biopharmaceutical executive Republican Bob Hugin in 2018. Hugin poured millions of his own dollars into his campaign against Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez, who had just exited a bruising federal corruption case after the charges were dropped against him. Hugin lost by more than 10 points, despite the timing having given Republicans hope they could knock off Menendez.
Mehta, who is Indian American, would be the first person of Asian descent to win a Senate seat from New Jersey if he is victorious. He would also be the first Republican since Clifford Case in 1972 to win a Senate election in New Jersey.
Booker was first elected in special election in October 2013 to fill the seat opened after Frank Lautenberg died. He was the first Black person to represent New Jersey in the Senate, and the just the ninth African American in the U.S. Senate. He won his first full term in 2014, defeating Republican Jeff Bell.
Election Day is Nov. 3, but voting in this year’s contest will mostly be by mail because of the coronavirus outbreak. Voters have already begun getting ballots, with most expected to have them by Oct. 5.
Besides Booker and Mehta, there are three other candidates running as well on other party tickets or their own slogans.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!