Cory Booker may be the most puzzling man in the Senate. We don’t know where he lives. We don’t know whom, if anyone, he lives with. And he’s been caught in lie after lie about his heroics. Yet, this enigma of a man has emerged as the king of odd-couple bromance, using selfies and Instagram posts to burnish his stardom even as he appears surprisingly vulnerable in his upcoming bid for reelection.
Take, as an instance of his mysteriousness, his reported affinity for “mani-pedis.” While mayor of Newark, Booker told Du Jour magazine that he “found this 24-hour mani-pedi place” where he went “in the middle of the night.”
“It’s this guilty pleasure,” he confessed. “Look, manis are good, but pedis — there’s something . . . transformative.” After reading the interview, I made a trip to the public library in Newark, where I found the phone numbers of all of the nail establishments in the city, at least the ones listed in the phonebook. I called them to ask about their hours, and none of them claimed to be open all night. In fact, there’s only one salon in all of New York City that’s open 24 hours a day. When I showed the employees there a picture of Booker and asked if he was a customer, they told me they’d never seen him. A spokesman for the senator declined to tell me where he got his nails done.
Many of Booker’s fiercest ideological opponents, however, are riding the Booker juggernaut rather than going in for the kill. Cory Booker can be beaten, at least the polls suggest so. So why are they so eager to cozy up to him, so hesitant to take him on?
Take Rand Paul, with whom Booker appeared last week on PBS, CNN, and MSNBC. They were touting their proposal for reforming the country’s criminal-justice system. Paul was one of the few Republican stars who campaigned energetically against Booker last year, but at a cocktail party hosted by Politico’s Mike Allen, they discussed the origins of their “bromance” and joked about co-starring in a reality show. This is the same Rand Paul who has knocked leaders of his own party for being insufficiently conservative, but there he was, arm-in-arm with a man who represents the blue-state liberalism he spends most of his time denouncing.
New Jersey’s junior senator is popular in Washington. His Republican opponent, former Reagan official Jeff Bell, even got a chilly reception from Ted Cruz, according to a source who attended the meeting the two had — the same Ted Cruz who precipitated the confrontation over the government shutdown last year. Cruz, according to the source, grilled the staunchly conservative Bell about why he hasn’t raised more money and asked him, pointedly, “How do you think you can win?” (Cruz’s office describes the conversation as a “fairly standard” one that it has with lots of candidates, and it is true that the latest Federal Election Commission filings show that Booker has nearly $3.5 million cash on hand while Bell has $0.) Cruz was spotted breaking bread with Booker in March, and Booker later gushed about their “great intellectual discussion.”
Booker has spent much of his nine months in office charming his colleagues, partly by photographing himself with them. He’s in the midst of a campaign to take selifies with each of his fellow senators. In the pictures he’s posted to his Instagram account, he’s praised Senate majority leader Harry Reid as a “profoundly kind, caring, compassionate, and decent man” and South Dakota Republican John Thune as a “valued colleague and friend who challenges me on issues in constructive ways.” You get the idea.
But Booker is less popular in New Jersey than he is in Washington. He is polling below 50 percent in his matchup against Bell, a policy wonk and virtual unknown in the state who has received little support from the national party. Though he was expected to breeze to reelection, a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday has Booker ahead by just ten points, 47 to 37 percent.
It’s Booker’s second statewide race in a year, and it’s the second time polls have shown him unexpectedly vulnerable. “It’s been surprising both times,” says John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. Last year, Booker was expected to trounce long-shot candidate Steve Lonegan in October’s special election, but after national media began for the first time to scrutinize his record, he stumbled on the campaign trail.
The New Jersey Republican party didn’t put up much of a fight. “The refusal to expose Cory Booker is frustrating,” says a Republican operative who has worked on campaigns both nationally and in New Jersey. “In 2013 the state GOP appeared to be on lockdown, refusing to go after both Cory Booker and Bob Menendez.” Even without that sort of institutional opposition, Booker saw a 30-point lead narrow to an 11-point win on Election Day.
The polls suggest that New Jersey voters, despite their solidly liberal bent, have gotten to know a different Cory Booker than has the public writ large: the one who garnered national praise for shoveling a constituent’s driveway while the city at large remained unplowed; who rushed into a burning building to save his neighbor but slashed three Newark fire companies; who boasted about the hundreds of millions of dollars his celebrity friends like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg showered on his needy city but who failed to effect meaningful change with it; who managed to found a tech company that made him a millionaire and recruited CNN president Jeff Zucker’s teenage son to sit on its board; who racked up over a million dollars in speaking fees while governing a poor, struggling city; and who, I’m told, for all his civic-mindedness, was carping about a New York Times piece critical of his mayoralty on the day the nation was transfixed by the massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Conn.
They’ve gotten to know the Cory Booker who embellished details about a shooting in several public speeches to demonstrate his inner-city bona fides. He falsely told audiences in painstaking and emotional detail that a 19-year-old gunshot victim died in his arms, and watched the murder rate skyrocket on his watch.
Newark residents, for their part, rejected the Booker legacy when they elected one of his liberal critics, the city councilman Ras Baraka, to succeed him in May.
Though most Republicans are afraid to take him on, a determined opponent would have ample material to work with. Booker has displayed a consistent pattern of dissembling and shifty behavior, and even partisan Democrats concede his ubiquitous presence on social media feels a little bizarre.
It’s not just the manicures that make you wonder. Booker’s office also declined to tell me where he lives in Washington, a subject that was raised just two days after he was elected. Booker told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he would “absolutely” consider living in a poor D.C. neighborhood such as Anacostia. “I really savor living in neighborhoods where there are great people struggling to make America real for all Americans,” he said. “And I just want to be in a neighborhood in D.C. that keeps me focused on the urgencies that I’m fighting for.” It’s certainly worth asking where that might be.
Booker has also been deliberately cagey about his personal life, using it to stoke media coverage but refusing to offer a definitive response about his sexuality. “People who think I’m gay, some part of me thinks it’s wonderful,” he told the Washington Post last August. “So what does it matter if I am? So be it.” Few would disagree with that sentiment, but the personal lives of politicians — their spouses and families — are usually a part of their public personas rather than a mystery left dangling.
Have Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, bought into the idea of “Cory,” an Ivy League–educated do-gooder who shoots hoops with at-risk youth at one turn and hobnobs with Silicon Valley execs at the next? Maybe.
“It’s surprising to me that no prominent New Jersey Republican sought the nomination to run this time,” says the Eagleton Institute’s Weingart. “You have the precedent in New Jersey of Christie Whitman’s rising from obscurity to get to be governor by challenging Bill Bradley, who was thought every bit as invincible as Booker is thought to be.” In that 1990 Senate race, Whitman, who went on to become the governor of the Garden State, mounted a long-shot candidacy and came within two points of ousting Bradley. “She came sufficiently close that it served as the foundation of her successful run for governor three years later,” Weingart says.
Jeff Bell is everything Cory Booker is not: He is old, he is wonky, and he is not flashy. “Jeff is a movement conservative who will expose Cory Booker as an empty suit by the time this thing is over,” says Scott Reed, the Chamber of Commerce’s political strategist, who called the contest the “sleeper race” that will surprise the “Washington know-it-all class.”
Perhaps, but Bell will probably have to pry a few supporters from Booker’s selfie club to make that happen.
— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.