Problem-plagued New Jersey Senate campaign mars Booker's political ascent

Holly Bailey
booker new jersey senate race oct 10
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Newark Mayor Cory Booker greets people at the Hoboken PATH station after winning the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate on August 14, 2013 in Hoboken, New Jersey (Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

CLIFFSIDE PARK, N.J. — Cory Booker’s bid for New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seat had been considered an easy steppingstone to the national political stage, another ambitious step in what has been his stratospheric rise into the upper echelon of the Democratic Party.

But a race that was supposed to be a cakewalk for the 44-year-old Newark mayor has been anything but — hijacked by strange tales including Booker’s Twitter messaging with a vegan stripper and his possible invention of a drug dealer friend named T-Bone often cited in his stump speech. Also damaging were stories about how he’d personally profited off being one of the most famous mayors in America — including more than $1 million in speaking fees that he had not previously disclosed.

Republican opponent Steve Lonegan has seized on Booker's missteps to portray him as a political opportunist who is more concerned with his own ambition than in New Jersey residents. He argues that Newark has not improved under Booker's tenure — pointing to, among other things, an uptick in crime in recent months.

"Under Cory Booker, about a month ago, 14-year-old Ali Henderson was shot to death in the streets of Newark while he was on the Jimmy Fallon show telling people what a great job he was doing," Lonegan declared in the race's final debate on Wednesday night.

Booker is in no serious danger of losing his bid for Senate — polls show him with at least a 10-point lead over Lonegan in the closing days before the Oct. 16 special election to replace Democratic Sen Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. But Booker's problematic campaign has left a blemish on Booker’s once enviable reputation as a rising star with the oratorical chops of President Barack Obama and digital savvy unmatched by any elected official of his generation.

The race has raised also questions about whether Booker is merely guilty of rookie mistakes in his first national campaign or if he’s simply not the promising newcomer national Democrats once believed him to be.

Booker’s missteps have prompted concern among allies who thought the race was a sure thing. Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a $1 million ad campaign to help shore up the Democratic hopeful in the final days before the election.

While Booker's aides insist concern about his campaign is overblown, the candidate has made a major course correction in recent days. After weeks of maintaining a light campaign schedule and largely ignoring Lonegan, Booker has stepped up his appearances and gone on the attack against Lonegan, launching a television ad attacking his opponent as a tea party extremist.

It’s a message that Booker has echoed on the stump in recent days, though the Newark mayor has been noticeably off his game.

On Tuesday, Booker held an event outside a Head Start facility in Cliffside Park — just across the Hudson River from New York City — where he attacked Lonegan for supporting the government shutdown. But that particular Head Start facility had not yet been affected by the shutdown, and just before he spoke, parents continued to arrive at the facility with their kids.

Booker also seemed to stumble at times over attack lines against Lonegan, and noticeably lacked the energy and charisma of past speeches that have often electrified the party faithful. He also seemed unprepared for questions about what he would do to end the shutdown if he were in Washington — delivering a rambling response that included vague promises of working with Republicans as he has with Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.

“But what exactly would you do?” a reporter pressed.

“I am not going to negotiate with myself right now for this purposes of this press conference … but I will be going down there to partner with people to find a way to end the shutdown,” Booker replied.

“But who would you work with?” another reporter asked.

Booker seemed exasperated. “I don’t say there’s an inability to work with anybody down there,” he replied.

While Booker remains the hands-down favorite in the race, the fact that he’s not leading by a bigger margin has mystified many Democrats — many of whom declined to be interviewed on the record about Booker or his campaign.

They criticized Booker for not campaigning more vigorously after winning the Democratic nomination in mid-August and for allowing Lonegan's attacks to go unanswered for weeks. Perhaps most of all, they were irritated that Booker had even allowed Lonegan to become a factor in the race — something that has puzzled political observers as well.

“Booker had the chance to blow this open early by drawing distinctions between himself and Steve Lonegan. New Jersey voters tend to turn away from Republicans who are too far to the right on social issues,” said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University. “The problem is, Cory Booker didn't even mention his opponent until just over a week ago. That allowed Lonegan to attack Booker's record and the veracity of his personal story without it being defended. It didn't help that Booker was making unforced errors at the same time.”

A former mayor of Bogota, N.J., Lonegan is a self-described tea party “radical” who has taken strongly conservative views at odds with New Jersey’s heavily Democratic voting electorate. Among other things, he has campaigned in favor of the federal shutdown and opposes legal abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. Lonegan recently campaigned with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will appear with Lonegan in New Jersey on Saturday.

But Lonegan has continued to move up in the polls, despite the overall weakness of his candidacy and with virtually no help from national Republicans, who have ignored the New Jersey race.

At a campaign stop on Tuesday, Lonegan spent nearly 15 minutes going through the meticulous history of tax policy in New Jersey, dating back to the state’s role in the 13 original U.S. colonies. He also claimed momentum in the race and predicted a victory that would “shock Democrats in Washington.”

Lonegan has accused Booker of “underestimating” his candidacy — a charge that Booker literally laughed off when asked for a response.

“That’s not the case,” Booker told Yahoo News. “In politics in New Jersey, you take every election seriously. You are talking to a guy who has come through some pretty tough races over my years.”

But Booker has given Lonegan an opening several times in the race. First, in an interview with the Washington Post, he encouraged speculation about his sexuality — telling the paper that he enjoyed it when people question whether he is gay.

A few days later, a historian told National Review Booker had confessed to him that a story he frequently told on the stump about meeting a drug dealer named T-Bone was made up — forcing the candidate back on the defensive.

In the most salacious campaign development, BuzzFeed reported that Booker had been exchanging flirty private Twitter messages with a Portland, Ore., vegan stripper named Lynsie Lee.

Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis defended his boss, insisting Booker has communicated with “people from all walks of life on Twitter.” Indeed, Booker’s political rise has stemmed from his unabashed embrace of social media — he has about 1.4 million Twitter followers and has been known to respond directly to many who send him messages.

He has personally responded to pothole complaints and made diaper runs for constituents stranded by a blizzard. During Superstorm Sandy last year, Booker took in a group of displaced Newark residents he met online, allowing them to bunk at his condo and watch his sci-fi movie collection.

But Lonegan has accused Booker of being more flash than substance — pointing to a dramatic increase in crime in Newark in recent months and suggesting the long troubled city has not improved under Booker’s leadership. He's also attacked Booker for his frequent travel out of state and for hanging out with celebrities like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who recently hosted a fundraiser for Booker’s campaign in Los Angeles.

"What New Jersey needs, sir, is a leader, not a tweeter," Lonegan told Booker during a recent debate. "We need somebody who's going to be there to govern, who's going to be there to do the job — not be running around the country on speaking tours and getting speaking fees."

But Booker insisted his travels around the country have included efforts to get private support for Newark — including a highly publicized $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to improve Newark public schools.

Lonegan’s attacks have taken a toll on Booker. A recent Monmouth University poll found a plurality of voters — 45 percent — believe he is in the race to raise his national profile, compared with 35 percent who say he is running to improve New Jersey.

And while 54 percent of likely New Jersey voters view Booker favorably, that number is down 7 points from June when he and Christie were among the most popular politicians in the state, thanks to strong support from independent swing voters.

Christie has been able to transform his own popularity into a major lead in his race for re-election. A Quinnipiac University poll found Christie leading his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, 62 percent to 33 percent —  thanks largely to his popularity among independents.

By comparison, Booker has lost ground with independent voters, who now favor Lonegan in the race 50 percent to 44 percent according to Quinnipiac. Two weeks ago, the voting bloc was split between Booker (47 percent) and Lonegan (44 percent).

Booker’s quest in the final days of the campaign isn’t just about winning the race. He is aiming to win by a significant margin in hopes that it might undo some of the damage to his reputation not just as an elected official but as a skilled campaigner.

Further complicating matters, his campaign announced Thursday Booker would suspend his campaign schedule for the day. Cary Booker, his 76-year-old father who recently suffered a stroke, had passed away in Las Vegas.