So far, Lonegan has shrugged off the negative buzz. Since most New Jersey Republicans passed on running, he has an opportunity, at age 57, to be a statewide nominee for the first time in his career. And since the race is the only Senate battle being waged this fall, he’ll be able to draw dollars and interest from conservatives across the country.
Lonegan, who is legally blind, grew up in Ridgefield Park, N.J., and began his career as a salesman for a kitchen-cabinet showroom. He was elected mayor three times in Bogota, which is a small, working-class community in northeastern New Jersey. When he was mayor, Republicans cheered him for cutting spending and privatizing services. Shaftan predicts Lonegan’s blue-collar grit and no-bull rhetoric will play well in the state; he only has to point to the state’s blunt governor as a case in point.
Lonegan also believes that Christie, who has long been his political foe, could end up being helpful to him as he takes on Booker. Christie and Booker have been friendly for years, but the governor may be looking to shore up his support on the right ahead of the 2016 presidential race. Come September, a Christie-Lonegan rally wouldn’t be surprising, and Shaftan says that the icy relations between Christie’s circle and Lonegan have been warming. Christie, at a press conference last week, said that he now gets along “pretty well” with his former opponent.
Before then, Lonegan will have to beat little-known physician Alieta Eck in August’s Republican primary. Eck filed to be on the ballot at the last minute, and it’s her first run for public office. She recently told reporters that she’s only starting to get her campaign together and lacks a “machine.”
Lonegan expects to spend little time and money on Eck, and has spoken often of how he wants to have a “respectful” primary before turning his attention to Booker, who is already being touted by Democrats as the party’s Next Big Thing. He points to the endorsements of a handful of county chairmen and state lawmakers as evidence that he’s the favorite of both the activists and the establishment.
But for the moment, Lonegan is running his campaign out of his basement. In the coming weeks, he’ll open field operations across the state. Most of his time is spent making fundraising calls since he’s far behind Booker, who has millions in his coffers and a big lead in the polls. A Monmouth University survey of likely voters shows Lonegan trailing Booker by 16 points, 53 to 37 percent.
Lonegan, however, remains one of the state’s most recognizable Republicans. “Right now, Booker and Lonegan are the only two candidates in the race with significant statewide name recognition,” says Patrick Murray, Monmouth University’s pollster. “Low turnout,” he adds, “normally benefits a Republican, so the Democratic nominee will need a boost from supporters more interested in the Senate race.”
Booker’s allies aren’t worried yet, but Lonegan’s team says it’s only a matter of time before their campaign starts to attract the interest of Republicans, who haven’t won a Senate race in the Garden State since 1972. Lonegan’s advisers say numerous tea-party leaders and a few national GOP officials are already reaching out, and they should have decent fundraising numbers to report at the end of the month.
“We’re running a decentralized campaign and we’re gaining,” Shaftan says. “Booker and the elites in the political class aren’t paying attention; they’re writing us off. But we’re going to surprise everybody. This is going to be the biggest race in the country by October, and Steve’s going to win.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.