The Republican nominee in New Jersey’s Senate race faces plenty of challenges in October’s special election. The Garden State has 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans, and the probable Democratic nominee, Newark mayor Cory Booker, is a political celebrity with a national fundraising base.
But Steve Lonegan, the likely Republican candidate, is confident he’ll be competitive. In an interview, the former mayor of Bogota, N.J., tells me he’ll turn the race into a referendum on President Obama’s record, using issues such as Obamacare and the IRS scandal. He also believes he can galvanize conservatives to turn out in droves. “I’m a conservative who’s proud to be a conservative,” he says. “I’m not following the moderate-Republican model.”
Turnout will be critical, since the contest will be held on a Wednesday in mid-October. Lonegan’s aides are counting on Democrats to show up in lower numbers than usual because of the odd date and the party’s focus on races for the state legislature. Booker may be flush with cash, but there could be an enthusiasm gap. “People have a problem with Obama, and Booker would be his rubber stamp,” says Rick Shaftan, Lonegan’s strategist. “There’s a contrast here with a Jersey conservative versus Mayor Glitterati.”
Shaftan previously worked for Lonegan in 2009, when Lonegan challenged Chris Christie in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Lonegan obviously lost, but he won 42 percent of the vote and drew strong conservative support. Since then, he has worked as state director of Americans for Prosperity, staying close to tea-party activists.
After several years as a professional conservative organizer, Lonegan has learned much about how to run guerrilla political efforts in a blue state, and has developed a network of volunteers. Last week, as he hustled to get on the ballot following Christie’s special-election announcement, his volunteers helped him secure 7,000 signatures in five days.
“It’ll be a street fight,” Shaftan says. “If you remember, Cory Booker starred in this movie called Street Fight, which was about one of his races for mayor. But pretty soon, he’s going to see what a real street fight is like. Lonegan is not a shy guy, and he isn’t going to hold anything back.”
Lonegan was also once featured in a documentary, Anytown, USA, which chronicled his successful 2003 race for mayor. The film showcased Lonegan’s conservative views and political abilities, as well as his combative style. Democrats are seizing on that film and other video of Lonegan’s bombastic commentary as evidence that he’s the GOP’s next loony Senate candidate — another Christine O’Donnell. Beltway Republicans are nervous about Lonegan’s tendency to throw hard right hooks.
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.