Cory Booker won his bid for New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seat on Wednesday, defeating Republican Steve Lonegan in a whirlwind special election race that gave the ambitious Newark mayor an official entry to the national political stage.
Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, had been the heavy favorite to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. He’s expected to be sworn in to the Senate as early as Thursday — giving Democrats an extra vote in what has been a tumultuous political period in Washington.
But it’s still unknown what kind of lawmaker Booker will be in the nation’s capital — or what damage, if any, his Senate campaign did to his stratospheric rise within the Democratic Party.
As mayor of Newark, Booker has been a larger-than-life political presence, a man as famous for rushing into a burning building to save a neighbor as he is for his savvy embrace of Twitter to communicate directly with his constituents. But the Senate is a different, stuffier place — where lawmakers deal more with one another than with the people they serve.
It’s unclear what kind of effect Booker’s celebrity might have on his profile in the Senate. On the one hand, he could chart a path as the Democratic alternative to visible Republican stars like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas or Rand Paul of Kentucky. Or he could follow in the footsteps of former Sen. Hillary Clinton, who pointedly worked with Republicans as she sought to build up her own legislative profile in advance of her 2008 presidential run.
Booker, who has made no secret of his desire for higher office, has suggested he’s willing to work with Republicans — pointing to his friendly relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Yet Booker’s time in the Senate could also serve to repair the damage done to his political reputation by his Senate bid. While it was never seriously suggested that Booker would lose the race, the Newark mayor struggled to pull away from the little-known Lonegan, a tea party candidate whose opposition to abortion and support of the federal government shutdown put him at odds with the majority of New Jersey voters.
Booker’s path to victory was largely complicated by his own missteps — including odd scandals involving his Twitter messages to a vegan stripper and revelations that he’d profited off being one of the most famous young mayors in the country.
Many Democrats were frustrated that Booker did not campaign more aggressively — as he spent days at a time off the trail and largely ignored Lonegan until the final days when polls suddenly showed him within 10 points of the mayor.
Perhaps Booker was saving his cash for the longer race. His win in Wednesday’s special election allows him to serve out the rest of Lautenberg’s term — which runs until November 2014.
If Booker wants to serve a full six-year Senate term, he’ll have to file to run again — a race that officially kicks off on Thursday.