When New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg died earlier this year, there were few people who believed the Republicans had a chance of picking up the seat. Pundits, conservatives and liberals alike believed Newark Mayor Cory Booker would simply walk into the Senate as Lautenberg's successor. They didn't count on former Bogota, N.J. Mayor Steve Lonegan who, according to the latest Quinnipiac Poll, is making it a real race.
Lonegan has been stumping up and down the Garden State making the case for his candidacy while Booker, who has apparently bought into all the pre-election hype, has spent a significant portion of his time campaigning out of state in places like California.
The Quinnipiac poll confirms what several private polls have already shown: it's a 12 point race. Lonegan is down 41 percent to 53 percent among the 948 likely voters surveyed, meaning it's still not quite a horse race; but the former businessman and long-time political activist has cut Booker's lead in half with virtually no money and with almost no outside support.
Why is Lonegan as close as he is? Some people suggest it's a by-product of the national environment. Voters are looking for an opportunity to register their disapproval with President Barack Obama's leadership, as reflected in his falling approval numbers, and with his signature health care law, which on paper is scheduled to go into effect shortly but which has been beset by delays that have forced the administration to issue waivers and shift deadlines forward.
Others suggest it is because GOP Gov. Chris Christie is going to win by such a large margin on November 5 that any tightening in the Lonegan-Booker contest is a natural consequence of Christie's popularity, even though the Senate contest will be decided almost two weeks earlier than the gubernatorial race.
But there may be other reasons, ones to which the national Republican Party and its donor base should pay careful attention. Lonegan is a compelling conservative who is not afraid to make the case for what he believes. Booker, meanwhile, is not exactly the candidate he is advertised as being.
Too many people have failed to take a close look at Booker, who has not exactly led Newark into a "Golden Age" of reform and rebuilding. Under his leadership, the overall rate of violent crime is up – and sharply, since he laid off 167 police officers in 2010. The number of murders has increased four years in a row, including a string of 10 homicides in 10 days and two more last week while he was off raising money in California.
The public schools remain a mess despite the mayor's promise to fix them, a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (which critics charge Booker mishandled badly) notwithstanding.
Things are actually more troublesome than that. Booker, as silly as it sounds, has what may or may not be an imaginary friend named "T-Bone," a drug-dealer whom he has used as a rhetorical device throughout his public life. The mayor claims "T-Bone" is a real person, but others question his existence as they do the mayor's long-held assertion that a shooting victim named Wazn Miller fell into and died in his arms.
The latest revelation, that he has been named in a fraud and racketeering suit, Kennebec GEP LLC v. Booker, which also involves the conduct in office of a former Newark deputy mayor, has also been given short shrift by a compliant, cheerleading media that sees Booker as the next Obama and, therefore, do not want to look into things too closely so as not to spoil the illusion.
Lonegan, on the other hand, has a compelling life story, recounted here in an ad being run by a conservative group supporting him. His father died when he was a boy. Raised with the assistance of his Italian immigrant grandparents, he was diagnosed at age 14 with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that would leave him almost completely blind by age 30. Advised to take up "basket weaving," he instead volunteered to work for two weeks for free in a kitchen cabinet store whose owner was reluctant to hire him in order to show what he could do.
As he admits, his life was a struggle, but by 1988 he was the largest kitchen cabinet dealer in the New York tri-state area. In 1995 he was elected mayor of Bogota, a town full of so-called Reagan Democrats, and served for three terms, cutting taxes and holding the line on spending.
If Lonegan were a Democrat, his life would already have been the subject of a made-for-television movie. Because he is a Republican there are those, even within his own party, who would rather pretend he simply did not exist.
Can Lonegan come back from a 12 point deficit in order to win on October 16? People who think he can point to former Sen. Scott Brown, who became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate in decades from Massachusetts and who was similarly down with even less time to go in his race than is left in the Lonegan-Booker race.
It is puzzling that with such a contrast lurking beneath the media hype that Lonegan is not getting more outside help. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose job it is to expand the GOP numbers in the U.S. Senate and, ultimately, get the party to majority, is nowhere to be seen, say those who are following the race closely. Likewise the conservative donors and activists who want to derail Obamacare – and who did so for a time with Brown's election to the Senate – have seemingly failed to realize the impact a Lonegan come-from-behind victory would have on the Washington politicians who are still standing with the president on his signature achievement. This is especially true for those Democrats in the Senate already expected to have a difficult time winning re-election in 2014.
Perfect storms do not come along often in politics. National conservatives and voters in New Jersey all need to take a much closer look at Lonegan and at Booker. What they will discover will probably conflict with the established narrative of the campaign but that should only remind everyone not to judge a Booker by his cover.