No rule of thumb for New Jersey U.S. Senate election

     On Wednesday, New Jersey voters will go to the polls to decide who will fill the vacated U.S. Senate seat by the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg: Republican Steve Lonegan (left) or Democrat Corey Booker(right).(AP Photos)

    On Wednesday, New Jersey voters will go to the polls to decide who will fill the vacated U.S. Senate seat by the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg: Republican Steve Lonegan (left) or Democrat Corey Booker(right).(AP Photos)

    Could the Republicans steal a seat in the U.S. Senate this week?

    I don’t mean steal steal, but grab a seat held for years, and perhaps taken for granted, by Democrats.

    I speak of the Wednesday special election in New Jersey to fill the term of Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.

    Conventional wisdom says this should be a walk for Democrat Cory Booker, the celebrated mayor of Newark,  who’s far better-known and has raised eight times as much money as Republican rival Steve Lonegan.

     

    But this is a special election in more than one sense. For starters, there’s the fact that it’s on Wednesday. I asked Larry Sabato, the nationally-known political analyst from the University of Virginia if he knows of any precedent to predict turnout on this one.

    He laughed.

    “Honestly, in my entire lengthy career of political analysis, I can’t remember many other Wednesday elections for anything,”  Sabato said.

    Add to that the fact that this election is on a Wednesday in October, three weeks before the general election and Sabato says you’ve got a formula for such a low turnout that “you pretty much guarantee that only the activists will participate.”

    And that gives supporters of Lonegan, a die-hard conservative, hope.

    You may remember 2010, when little-known Christine O’Donnell won a low-turnout Senate primary in Delaware to capture the Republican nomination. It’s understandable if Lonegan’s enthusiastic followers picture the same thing.

    Nate Persily, an elections expert at the Stanford Law School said unpredictable things can happen in very low turnout contests.”When you don’t know who’s going to turn out or what the factors are that will decide the race, then I think it’s possible that candidates that are on the fringes, or not even on the fringes, just candidates that have a low chance of winning normally might actually win,” he said.

    While that’s true as a general proposition, Sabato still thinks Lonegan overcoming Booker is a major long shot.”I’m not sure there are enough conservatives in New Jersey to do this,” Sabato said. “And it’s not like the Democratic organization will be sitting on its hands.”

    I also checked in with Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University poll, which just found Lonegan within 10 points of Booker.

    Murray also couldn’t think of any precedent to predict turnout in a Wednesday election in October. He said his models are showing a turnout in New Jersey of between 35 and 40 percent. He said he expected Lonegan’s faithful turn turn out in droves.

    “That’s probably not going to be enough for Steve Lonegan,” Murray said. “The question is, will moderate Republicans show up? Steve Lonegan has been trying to make this a national referendum on Obama in the hopes of getting those moderate Republicans out who may not agree with him on all the issues.”

    Murray said Lonegan has been smart about spending his limited campaign cash on strategically-placed ads on radio and cable TV, and it’s helped him make the race closer than many would have predicted.

    The winner gets to keep the seat until the end of next year, and run to keep it in November, 2014.

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