Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s special election for the U.S. Senate next week, has had a honeymoon with the news media that’s lasted a dozen years. A tall, telegenic, mixed-race liberal lawyer with an Ivy League degree and the gift of gab, he long ago charmed New York and Washington media elites. In a sense, he was akin to Barack Obama before Barack Obama hit the national radar screen with his “red states, blue states” speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.
A big difference between the two was that Obama was the luckiest possible candidate that year: Both his primary opponent and his general-election opponent were badly harmed by a sex scandal, both resulting from leaked legal documents. Obama swept into the U.S. Senate against his eventual opponent, the underfunded and mercurial Alan Keyes. By contrast, Booker lost his 2002 race for mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, in a race plagued with voter fraud and a patronage army that turned out for the corrupt regime of incumbent Mayor Sharpe James. Writing about his candidacy at the time, I pointed out that Booker was one reform Democrat who knew that voter fraud was real and not some fiction invented by conservatives to suppress the minority vote. Aided by scrutiny from the office of then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, Booker was able to finally beat the machine in 2006.
Since then, I have occasionally followed and written about Booker’s seven-year tenure as mayor. The bottom line is that Newark is still struggling. Downtown has flashy new buildings fueled by subsidies, but away from the glass and chrome, Newark is still America’s seventh-deadliest city, and it continues to be ravaged by an infamously dysfunctional school system that’s been taken over by the state. Scott Beyer, a writer on urban issues, has written a fair-minded piece in The Weekly Standard that concludes: “Booker, to his credit, attempted to rein in spending on the municipal workforce but largely failed, because of city hall and union resistance.”
That hasn’t stopped Booker from touting his record as mayor while disparaging that of his opponent, Steve Lonegan, the three-term Republican mayor of suburban Bogota. Booker claims that Lonegan ran his city “into a ditch” and sought supplemental aid from the state.
The two men clashed on that and other issues during the final of their two televised debates on Wednesday night. For many voters, it was probably their first look at Lonegan, who came across as a more svelte version of the sometimes-bombastic Chris Christie. Lonegan used, shall we say, unfortunate imagery when he described money disappearing into “the big black hole” of Newark.
Booker was smoother and more congenial but also more slippery on the issues. When he could be pinned down, he came across more as a garden-variety liberal than the reform Democrat I had heard speak over the years.
Traces of the reformer remained. Booker still departs from liberal orthodoxy by backing charter schools, and he noted he’s been friendly with the late Jack Kemp and the conservative Manhattan Institute.
But on issue after issue, Booker took the conventional liberal path. Lonegan’s warnings about out-of-control spending and debt? An obsession of “tea-party extremists” who advocate “shutdown politics.” Rising crime rates? Booker implied they were largely caused by guns imported from states with more lax gun laws and that more gun control could be the cure. Abortion? Booker supported Roe v. Wade and ignored questions about his role as chairman of the 2012 Democratic-platform committee, which took out language from previous platforms decreeing that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
Booker was especially disappointing on two issues. He continued to defend Obamacare, even though many of those who expect health insurance from it will be dumped into the substandard Medicaid program. Equally worrying, he pandered by warning that hydraulic fracking for oil and gas was “polluting our water,” a statement belied by all the facts, including those issued by the EPA.
The debates leave the Senate race with Booker still in front but with his lead slipping as serious questions surface about the truthfulness of some anecdotes from his life story, which Eliana Johnson has reported on extensively at NRO. His friend, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, is suddenly spending $1 million to shore him up.
Lonegan has been largely ignored by national Republican donors, although his former rival Governor Christie did recently hold a fundraiser for him. If Lonegan has made any critical mistake, it’s been the delay in allowing his life story to become part of the campaign. A new pro-Lonegan ad by the independent-expenditure group American Commitment presents a candidate few even knew existed until now.
Lonegan’s is a true Horatio Alger story. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 14 and told he would “end up weaving baskets,” he was completely blind by age 30. But he persevered and became the largest kitchen-cabinet dealer in the state. As Lonegan says in the ad: “I went from being a Social Security disability recipient to a successful businessman. Not because of a government program, but because of the free-market economy, because of an opportunity given by business, not by government. That’s what America is all about.”
The fundamentals of the race favor Booker, but there are special circumstances that could make it close. The election will be the first in anyone’s memory held on a Wednesday, and no other race will be on the ballot. As Slate’s Dave Weigel notes: “Booker better be prepared to hand out a lot of walking-around money if he wants to motivate the city vote. Urban turnout is notoriously low even in the best of years. If you’ve ever been in Newark on Election Day, you’ve seen the great lengths the Democrats have to go to in order to coax people to the polls.”
New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. senator in over four decades, and even the circumstances surrounding an October special election aren’t likely to break that trend. But even a close race would help demonstrate that Republicans haven’t been as damaged as much by the government shutdown as some predicted, and that Cory Booker’s lunge to the left may not be the smartest politics. Barack Obama, a true left-winger who hid his extremism for much of his political career, has divided the country and made it harder for Democrats to reach out to the center. The more that Cory Booker adopts Obama Lite political positions and tarnishes his own straight-talking reformer image, the faster he might hit his political ceiling.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.