Bogota, N.J. — Steve Lonegan’s Senate campaign is being run out of his basement. Three tables are covered with blue bumper stickers, and a lone staffer — Sean Carney, a recent graduate of Loyola University — sits by the phone. A pile of dolls and plastic toys discarded by Lonegan’s grown-up daughters is stashed in a corner.
It’s base camp for the Republican party’s last, best hope of winning a Senate seat this year.
Most Republicans, however, aren’t paying attention — at least not yet. Newark mayor Cory Booker, a Democratic celebrity, is the frontrunner for October’s special election, and Lonegan is considered the longest of long shots — a tea-party outsider in a deep-blue state.
But he’s gearing up for a battle. The former mayor of this sleepy suburban town predicts low turnout and conservative enthusiasm will make him competitive, and he dismisses Booker’s popularity as adoration by liberals who don’t live in the Garden State.
He also shrugs off Booker’s million-plus following on Twitter. “C’mon, just read it. It’s shallow, and Twitter doesn’t vote.”
Lonegan’s guerrilla campaign started in early June, soon after the death of Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg. Most prominent Republicans were hesitant to run in the special election, due to the compressed calendar, but Lonegan saw it as an opportunity.
Too often, Lonegan says, the GOP runs cookie-cutter moderates in blue states. “But that strategy never works,” he explains. “You’ve got to fire up your base, or they ignore you. I’m going to get conservatives to the polls and because I don’t pander, my message is going to resonate with independents and conservative Democrats.”
“Remember, regardless of whom Republicans run, it’s always the same attacks from Democrats, so you might as well run a conservative,” Lonegan says. “You should have someone who’s willing to fight, instead of just sitting there and taking the punches.”
Pugnacity is Lonegan’s trademark. At a tea-party rally last year, he famously flipped off a progressive reporter. His interactions with fellow politicians, both Republican and Democrat, have been volatile. When he was mayor of Bogota from 1996 to 2008, town meetings would frequently become heated clashes.
For the past month, though, Lonegan has been quietly building his campaign. As a former state director at Americans for Prosperity, he has a wide network of conservative activists behind him. More notable is how the state Republican establishment, which has long been hostile to him, has coalesced around his candidacy.
GOP congressmen Leonard Lance, Frank LoBiondo, and Scott Garrett have endorsed him, as have many local officials. Even Governor Chris Christie, whom Lonegan challenged in New Jersey’s 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary, has signaled that he’ll campaign for his old foe, should Lonegan win August’s primary, as he is expected to do.
In the meantime, Lonegan is working to raise money. New Jersey’s media market is one of the country’s most expensive, and Lonegan knows that Booker will likely have a major cash advantage in the general election.
“Believe me, by October, everyone in the country will be talking about this race, so we’ve got to be ready,” Lonegan says. “I know a lot of conservatives sat on the sidelines in Massachusetts, but this is a different state, and I’m a real Republican.”
It’s easy to underestimate him. But people have done that his entire life, he says, only to be surprised. At age 14, he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and he eventually lost his sight. “I saw firsthand what it’s like to deal with the welfare state,” he recalls. “Again and again, I was told I needed to rely on the government.”
Lonegan didn’t care for that message. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from William Paterson College and a master’s degree in business from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He then had a successful career as a salesman and a small-town mayor — and as a renowned retail politician.
“I only wish I could work a room a little better,” he says. “Sometimes I miss people, as you can imagine, and they think I’m avoiding them, since I don’t exactly broadcast that I’m visually impaired. But people respond when they realize that I just want to listen.”
It’s that side of Lonegan — the tough Republican who has overcome obstacles — that could connect come October.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.