The New Jersey GOP’s Secret Senate Race Weapon

The race could turn on intensity, which plays to Lonegan’s advantage.

Former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan speaks at a rally of several hundred people gathered Friday Feb. 8, 2008, in front of the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., to oppose Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine's attempt to significantly increase highway tolls to pay state debt and fund transportation.

Democrats – and most Republicans – expect that the party will keep the seat held on and off since the 1980s by the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the upcoming special election. GOP Gov. Chris Christie certain seems to believe it which is probably why, having determined the law required him to schedule a quick election, he picked a Wednesday in October – giving the special election a $24 million price tag – just two weeks before he must face the voters in his regularly scheduled bid for a second term.

If he hadn't, Christie might have been on the ballot at a time when the Senate race was energizing Democrats to turn out, making his expected path to an easy win as bumpy as the north end of the Jersey Turnpike.

All that's fine with former Bogota, N.J. Mayor Steve Lonegan, the former leader of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the GOP's best chance to win a Senate race since Jeff Bell ousted incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 primary.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Despite losing the GOP primary to Christie four years ago Lonegan is a force to be reckoned with. Legally blind, he was for 12 years the mayor of Bogota, which gave Barack Obama better than 65 percent of the vote in the last election. For 11 of those years Lonegan also had working control of the city council, which allowed him to author and pass tax cutting measures, reduce the size of government, and put into place a law requiring any city budget that increased spending by more than the rate of inflation to be ratified by a vote of the people in this overwhelmingly Democrat community.

Lonegan has compiled an impressive political resume, leading two successful statewide campaigns against big spending ballot measures – which is a nice contrast with his opponent in the GOP primary, Dr. Alieta Eck, whose experience in politics seems not to go much beyond this speech to the extremist John Birch Society. Lonegan's network is formidable, turning in 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot in just about 36 hours when only 1,000 were required – an indication that his political base, inspired by his Chris Christie-style plain speaking, is highly energized and ready to go.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Compare that to the Democrats, who have four candidates competing in what is essentially a free shot for the right to go to the Senate. The front-runner, Newark Mayor Cory Booker – whatever else he may do – does not play well with the solons who have run the Democratic Party in either north or south Jersey. He will not be much help to them in the Senate which is why they may secretly prefer Rep. Frank Pallone, who has been salivating over the chance to jump to the Senate for at least a decade and who represents everything that is wrong with Jersey politics as typically understood. Also in the race are Rep. Rush Holt, who represents the area around Princeton, and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Any of them could win the primary, which is sure to be a low turn-out election. The smart money is backing Booker or Pallone but the reality is that, with just only a year between the special election and the next time the seat comes up, the losers in the Democratic primary might just as well be happy to see the Republican win the general so they can run again.

The special election is an off-election in an off-year, meaning that intensity matters. It's not at all clear that Booker or Pallone's support can match Lonegan's in intensity, especially with President Obama's approval numbers steadily dropping, especially among young people. The national issue matrix is heavily favoring the GOP right now, what with the scandals at the IRS and Department of Justice, the mismanagement by the president's national security team of the events at Benghazi, and the imploding implementation of Obamacare. The spoils in the New Jersey Senate special will go to the candidate who works the hardest – and right now that candidate is Steve Lonegan.

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  • Corrected on : Corrected 6/21/13: A previous version of this blog post incorrectly stated that Steve Lonegan currently holds an office with Americans for Prosperity. He vacated his roles to run for the open New Jersey Senate seat.