Take note, Washington elite: a superhero is on the way.
Propelled by his near-universal name recognition and an epic fundraising advantage, Newark Mayor Cory Booker achieved a decisive win in New Jersey's special Senate election Wednesday night. By the end of month, his massive Twitter following and penchant for political pageantry will be making a new home in America's dysfunctional capital.
Booker defeated Steve Lonegan, a former small town mayor and ardent Tea Party conservative, by a comfortable 55-44 margin. Since winning the Democratic primary in August, his campaign emphasized bipartisan cooperation and pro-business centrism -- themes that struck a chord with the New Jersey electorate as ideological gridlock brought basic federal government operations to a halt. Of course, a deal to raise the debt limit was reached hours before Booker’s election, but one has to assume he will find a way to make himself heard sooner rather than later.
"This is a vote for a certain kind of politics as much as a party or personality," says Ben Dworkin, director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rutgers. Not that personality was lacking, what with Booker's propensity for tweeting at strippers and Lonegan's insistence on touting orthodox Tea Party conservatism in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000.
And then there was the elephant in the room: Governor Chris Christie, a rising GOP star facing re-election next month who is being mooted as a 2016 presidential hopeful. Christie, who defeated Lonegan himself in a feisty gubernatorial primary four years ago, did just enough on the Republican Senate nominee’s behalf -- recording robocalls, for example -- to give the veneer of commitment to the conservative cause without actually sacrificing any of the raw political capital he needs for the future.
Lonegan ran a campaign straight out of the Tea Party playbook. He decried out-of-control spending by Washington and sympathized with conservatives on the Hill who shut down the government in a bid to defund Obamacare. The former mayor of a town called Bogota thumbed his nose at the conventional wisdom that such a hard-right message would prove toxic in “Blue Jersey,” and the dozens of conservative activists at his victory party in an elegant suburban banquet hall showered him with adoration and pleas for another run as soon as possible. The ones I canvassed viewed Christie as an establishment figure, certainly, but were willing to forgive him for focusing on his own political survival. In fact, the scene was a rather optimistic one, centering on pride that Lonegan had outperformed initial expectations. This race seemed to be as much about making the point that Tea Party conservatism is a force in New Jersey as actually electing a senator.
Political observers pounced this week on the fact that Booker’s once-stratospheric lead in the polls had collapsed to merely a dominant one, but his allies argue the important thing is that the Newark mayor emerged unscathed with a healthy war chest to help secure a full term next year.
“When you put your hand on the Bible and raise your hand, they don’t ask you how much you won by,” New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews told the Daily Beast. “Cash on hand is better than five extra points tonight.”
Lonegan vowed to return to the promised land that is the private sector in a brief concession speech delivered a few minutes after the Associated Press called the race for Booker, one in which he seemed to delight in his own failure.
“Who wants that job anyway?” he joked, eliciting cheers from the crowd, which skewed old and white. When Lonegan thanked Christie for his assistance, the throng of activists went silent, before exploding into applause when he made similar gestures of gratitude to Sarah Palin and Texas Governor Rick Perry, both of whom stumped on his behalf.
“The big Washington power groups and consultants said we couldn't win,” Lonegan said to howls. “Well, maybe if they had played a role in this election, we would have won. But we rode this election near victory on the backs of giants, and that's you guys."
The national GOP and its fundraising apparatus left Lonegan for dead from the start. Even if it’s tempting to ascribe his massive defeat to an all-out embrace of the government shutdown, the former head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity was on a collision course with disaster no matter what he did in the campaign’s final weeks.
Cory Booker is an outsized figure who has garnered huge popularity and media coverage by replying to questions from Newark residents via Twitter and even rescuing a neighbor from a fire. He also had the entire Democratic establishment, from President Obama to local machine bosses like South Jersey insurance giant George Norcross, making his case in backrooms and on television screens. Labor went all-in, too, even if Booker’s cozy relationship with Wall Street has raised eyebrows nationally. Michael Bloomberg made his mark with an estimated $1 million in pro-Booker TV spots as well, compensating for any lost cash from activist progressives like Netroots.
During the campaign, Booker promised to leverage his wealthy allies for the public good, including aggressive measures to combat child poverty. Now that he’s been elected, the question is whether he can use his unique skill set to shake things up in Washington. After all, what works in a burning building in his home city may not work in the Capitol.
With reporting by Ben Jacobs.