Special U.S. Senate election underway in New Jersey

 Cory Book vs. Steve Lonegan. (Photos by The Associated Press)

Cory Book vs. Steve Lonegan. (Photos by The Associated Press)

Polls are open across New Jersey to elect a Senator to finish off the term of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg

Today’s special U.S. Senate election between the major party candidates Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan is being touted by President Obama, national Republican leaders, and the candidates themselves as a referendum on the House Republicans’ decision to force a partial federal government shutdown and risk a first-ever federal debt default in an attempt to derail Obama’s Affordable Care Act and compel federal spending cuts.

But with an uncertain turnout expected in New Jersey’s first-ever Wednesday election and with Booker’s once-shimmering national brand tarnished by a series of self-inflicted gaffes and personal attacks by Lonegan, pollsters and political analysts say they won’t know until the election returns come in tonight how to read the message that voters are sending.

“It’s really not clear from the polling exactly what’s motivating voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “There are too many countervailing issues. You have the shutdown and Booker painting Lonegan as part of the problem, but Lonegan has been painting Booker — assisted by Booker — as someone motivated by his own ambitions.” Analysis is difficult in “a race that is so bizarre with a special election compacted into a short period.”

The unusual special election is being held on a Wednesday in mid-October because Republican Gov. Chris Christie wanted to keep Booker’s Senate candidacy off the November 5 ballot. That’s when Christie is running for reelection against underfunded Democrat Barbara Buono, who could have benefited from running with Booker at the top of the ticket and from the well-funded get-out-the-vote campaign that Booker showed off in his convincing August 13 primary win.

Booker has raised $11.2 million to Lonegan’s $1.35 million as of last count, giving him the same overwhelming money advantage that Christie enjoys over Buono. But the final weekend polls in the campaign vary wildly, with Murray’s Monmouth Poll and the Quinnipiac Poll showing Booker with similar 52-42 and 54-40 percent leads, while the last Rutgers University Eagleton Poll showed Booker ahead by a whopping 22 points at 58 percent to 36 percent.

The problem with polling this special election is that 10 percent of regular voters didn’t even know there was an election this week, much less that it was being held on a Wednesday, Murray noted. That’s why Obama’s web ad for Booker this weekend reminded voters five times that the election was being held on a Wednesday, not a Tuesday. A network newscaster got the date wrong last weekend, and the Christie campaign sent out a Twitter tweet urging Republicans not to forget to vote Tuesday.

In fact, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll last week found that only 64 percent of registered voters knew that a U.S. Senate election was being held. But that hasn’t stopped Lonegan, Booker, Obama, national Republican and Democratic leaders, and TV commentators from casting the race as a definitive referendum on House Republican tactics in forcing a federal government shutdown.

“A win in New Jersey on Wednesday, which we will have, will be ‘the shot heard around the world,'” Lonegan proclaimed at a rally with Sarah Palin in front of a big brown “Tea Party Express” banner Saturday. If Lonegan wins, he said, Obama and Democratic congressional leaders would be forced to “fold” their opposition. But if Booker wins, Lonegan warned, “the White House would parade that victory around the entire country as validation.”

Obama started to set the stage for that argument when he appeared in a weekend web ad for Booker. “New Jersey,” the president declared, “has the opportunity to send a message to the entire country about what kind of leadership we expect in Congress, that we’re better than the shutdown politics we’ve seen in Washington.”

It is an argument that Booker has made the centerpiece of his campaign for the 15 days since the partial government shutdown began, charging that Lonegan is a prime example of “Tea Party extremism,” who would “make Washington worse” by backing the conservative House Republican who forced the shutdown.And it is an argument that Lonegan reinforces by praising Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who sparked the House Republican insurgency, and urging conservative Republicans in Congress to “hold the line” in its effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act — against which Lonegan waged a grass-roots campaign in New Jersey when he served as executive director of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group bankrolled nationally by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The national news focus on the 15-day government shutdown, tomorrow’s debt-ceiling deadline, and the high-stakes showdown between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have both taken voter attention away from the U.S. Senate race and provided an opportunity for Booker to emphasize his theme of the need for a politics of compromise — a message he underscored at a joint appearance with Christie – as opposed to the politics of confrontation that Lonegan overtly favors.

Murray and John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute, agreed that it would be hard to assess the impact of the shutdown until after the election.

“We (the Monmouth University Poll) have Booker at 10 points, Quinnipiac at 14,” Murray noted. “If he ends up winning by 20 points or more, then, yes, it’s voters rejecting the Tea Party.”

“If Lonegan wins or comes close, it will certainly be portrayed as voters agreeing with him, and that would be plausible given that his views on so many major issues are out of step with New Jersey voters,” Weingart said, referring to Lonegan’s outspoken opposition to abortion, gay marriage, stiffer gun control laws, the Affordable Care Act, and raising the minimum wage.

But if Booker’s margin is closer to the 10 to 14 points that the Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls were showing, the result probably has more to do with the campaigns that Booker and Lonegan waged than with voter anger or support for the national politics of the government showdown, political experts agreed.

“It’s a New Jersey habit electing Democrats to the Senate,” Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said, referring to the state’s 41-year history of failing to vote a Republican into the U.S. Senate.

“The liberal mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, holds onto the double-digit lead over the conservative former mayor of Bogota, Steve Lonegan, that we measured when we first looked at likely voters,” he said yesterday after releasing a poll that showed Booker holding a substantial 58 percent to 36 percent lead over Lonegan among women and a narrow 45-40 lead among men, with independent voters and white voters evenly split between the two candidates.

Weingart said Lonegan’s performance is surprising considering that New Jersey Republicans usually run candidates who are in the liberal to moderate wing of the GOP. “Lonegan is the first New Jersey statewide candidate who fits comfortably in the right wing of the Republican Party nationally, and he is the first who does not think compromise is a necessary part of governing,” Weingart said, adding that this year’s campaign contrasted sharply with the relative “civility and bipartisanship” that characterized last year’s race between Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his GOP challenger, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).

Murray and Weingart both credited Lonegan with running one of the best statewide campaigns in recent memory against a national celebrity candidate who was overwhelmingly favored to trounce him as easily in the general election as he defeated a pair of Democratic congressmen and the Assembly speaker in the primary.”This was one of the best campaigns for messaging we’ve seen on the Republican side for a long time. Lonegan’s attack ads against Booker were some of the best-constructed attack ads I have seen in a long time,” Murray said.

Lonegan “hammered into doubts that voters had” not only about Booker’s performance in Newark, but also about whether he was running more for personal ambition than because he wanted to make a difference in Washington — the same “workhorse vs. show horse” line that the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s son used against the Newark mayor he felt had pushed too hard to get his father to retire rather than seek reelection in 2014. Lautenberg died in office in June, prompting the special election.

Lonegan never varied from his conservative message and his focus on turning out conservative voters, assuming that it would be a low-turnout election — an assumption that Murray questions, given Booker’s success in turning out a high Democratic primary vote on August 13. But that’s why he didn’t hesitate to bring in Palin last weekend, even though she has the highest negatives even among Republican voters of any national Republican leader, Murray pointed out.

Lonegan didn’t even suffer in the polls for his or his campaign’s rhetorical excesses. He called cities like Newark a “big black hole” and said during last week’s debate that Newark’s Passaic River is filled with the bodies of shooting victims, and he had to fire his chief political strategist Rick Shaftan for profane remarks questioning Booker’s sexuality, yet he didn’t drop at all in the polls.

Meanwhile, Booker, who looked invincible coming out of his August 13 primary win, has suffered from a series of stories that cut into his lead in the polls. It started with a Washington Post article in which he declined to discuss his sexuality, but confessed his fondness for late-night pedicures and manicures — a comment that prompted Lonegan to say that he preferred a Scotch and a cigar. Stories about Booker’s Twitter friendship with a stripper at a vegan strip club in Oregon, and questions about whether some of the characters in his stories about Newark were real, composites or imaginary, soon followed.

Newark’s late August wave of murders contrasted with Booker’s argument that he had turned Newark around by bringing private investment into the city. Other stories focused on the number of days Booker spent away from the city making speeches or mixing with Hollywood celebrities or high-tech billionaires, some of whom partnered with him on a multimillion dollar high-tech venture he was forced to divest.

But most of all, Murray said, “Booker didn’t run a good campaign, he didn’t engage. New Jersey expects you to fight for your vote, even if you’re in line with the voters on the issues. He took it for granted, so now he had to fight back.”

That’s what Booker has been doing for the past two weeks, using the government shutdown to try to define Lonegan as an “extremist” and to underscore fundamental differences between them both on the issues and on how they would serve out the final year of Lautenberg’s term before running for a full six-year term in 2014.

“We’ll see how well they did when the numbers come in,” Weingart said. “If Lonegan wins, Christie looks like a genius for setting up a special election where the turnout would be low. But even if Booker wins, Lonegan has set himself up well to run again against Booker next year.”

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NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks. 

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