Don’t bank on Booker

The lead had been as high as 35 points. But two new independent polls in the New Jersey special U.S. Senate race show Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s (D) lead shrinking to as little as 12 points over former mayor and Americans for Prosperity state director Steve Lonegan (R).  Lonegan – a firebrand conservative and favorite of New Jersey’s tea party groups – has clawed his way back in the race thanks to some questionable decisions of the Booker campaign, the slight whiff of scandal surrounding Booker himself, and some brass knuckle campaigning of his own. The election is set for next Wednesday, October 16th.

Lonegan is a former small-business owner who served three terms as a popular mayor in suburban Bogota, New Jersey. While in office, he oversaw cuts to the town budget, merged municipal departments and privatized some town services, and battled local police and public worker unions. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998 and more recently for governor in 2005 and 2009, during which he challenged eventual Republican nominees Brett Schundler and Chris Christie from the right. Christie is now the wildly popular Governor of New Jersey, and has endorsed Lonegan’s campaign for Senate, although he has only appeared publicly with him once.

Booker has been a celebrity politician since winning a seat on the Newark city council in 1998. He ran unsuccessfully against former mayor Sharpe James in 2002, getting elected mayor in 2006 after James declined to seek a fifth term. As mayor, Booker has governed with a flair for the dramatic, such as when he made national news rescuing a woman from a burning building.  He is a presence on social media sites, particularly Twitter, working hard to maintain a “man of the people” image.

Part of the lore of Cory Booker is his closeness to the people of the city he governs. He famously moved into a housing project in the city’s central ward upon his election to the city council, later moving to a drug-infested neighborhood in the south ward once he was elected mayor. Booker makes it a habit of riding with city police on late night tours, directs city resources to handle complaints received at his Twitter account, and personally intervenes with gang members and drug dealers on the city’s troubled streets.  It is interesting, then, that the first questions about Booker sprung from his celebrated interactions with Newark’s seedy side.

In August and September, Booker was forced to fend off charges that one such drug dealer, whom he refers to as T-Bone, is a figment of his imagination. An article in National Review revived questions over T-Bone’s existence, although Booker named him numerous times in speeches after becoming mayor.  According to Booker, he shared a cab ride with T-Bone after an altercation in which the drug dealer allegedly threatened his life. The story ends with Booker befriending T-Bone, counseling him to turn himself in to the authorities. The questions about T-Bone helped take some of the luster off a campaign that was widely viewed as heading more toward a coronation than a competition.

It was the opening Lonegan needed. He began to go hard after Booker’s record as mayor, hitting him on crime (it’s on the rise in Newark), his out of state fundraisers (there have been many), and Booker’s questionable ties to a law firm where he was once an associate. Since becoming mayor, Booker has received close to $700,000 from Trenk Di Pasquale under the terms of an undisclosed “separation agreement.” During that time, the firm has received more than $2 million in contracts from the City of Newark, and Booker’s tax records indicate that he “materially participated” in the firm while mayor. Moreover, Booker received a 50% increase in payments from the firm in 2009, two years after taking office.

Lonegan has been relentless in his pursuit. In the first of two televised debates this weekend, Lonegan repeatedly turned the spotlight on Booker’s record. “The only economic growth in Newark is in Cory Booker’s bank account,” he said. Lonegan also sought to use Booker’s Internet celebrity against him. “We need a leader, not a tweeter.”

On the issues, Lonegan voiced his support for Republicans in their showdown with President Obama and the Democratic controlled Senate over the budget, vowing not to support any increase in the nation’s borrowing limit unless “massive” cuts are made in spending. On Obamacare, Lonegan labeled Booker “a left-wing extremist” and called for the law to be delayed a year. “This bill is an absolute train wreck. If it needs to be improved, why is it being forced down the throats of Americans?” Lonegan said.

Evidence that the attacks have made the race too close for Booker’s liking can be found not only in the polls, but in a string of negative ads he has begun running against Lonegan. Stung by the tarnishing of his record and by criticism both from within New Jersey and from Washington that he is running a lackluster campaign, Booker is being forced to address Lonegan head on. As he does so, Lonegan will get more and greater opportunities to explain his views to the voters. The two square off again in a second televised debate this Wednesday, just one week before voters go to the polls.

Special elections are unpredictable. Lonegan still has a long way to go and has to be considered a long-shot in deep blue New Jersey. But he has a puncher’s chance. Lonegan’s attacks have already robbed Booker of the air of inevitability surrounding him, forcing him to work for the seat. If he can continue to raise questions about Booker, another strong showing from Lonegan in the second debate could throw the race into a toss-up. Then it would be anybody’s guess.