This week a very small number of New Jersey voters cast their ballots in a special primary election for the deceased Frank Lautenberg's seat in the US Senate. Bad weather and summer vacations helped account for the low turnout, as well as a sense that Corey Booker and Steve Lonegan would be the inevitable nominees on route to a Booker landslide in October.
That fact itself says a lot. In the first place, it shows Booker's megawatt star power in the Garden State, since he had to run against a pretty formidable group of politicians: Rush Holt, Sheila Oliver, and Frank Pallone. The latter had the Lautenberg family's endorsement, Holt was the most progressive and experienced in Washington, and Oliver is the Speaker of the state's General Assembly. Any one of the losing candidates would have been a tough opponent for Chris Christie, who the Democrats are so afraid of that no one of Oliver, Pallone, or Holt's stature dared run against him. Booker has been a rising star for some time in the Democratic Party, despite his cozy relationships with Wall Street and Chris Christie, embrace of education "reform," and cold-shouldering of the labor movement. While I am mostly happy with the job he has done here in Newark and will be voting for him in the fall, I think many New Jersey Democrats will ultimately be disappointed with the stances he will take in Washington. Booker has earned a progressive reputation for vocally defending food stamps and gay rights, but he is in actuality a lot more moderate than both his supporters and opponents realize.
There is not one shred of moderation in Steve Lonegan, Booker's Republican opponent. He is a conservative, Tea Party firebrand who is so far to the right that his campaign has the potential to embarrass the New Jersey GOP. Lonegan is rabidly anti-abortion, staunchly pro-gun, has blamed "government regulation" for Camden's deindustrialization, blames gridlock in Congress on "the president's insistence on forcing his far-left liberal agenda on the country," called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, supports a flat tax, praised Romney's 47% comments, and has even downplayed the suffering of Hurricane Sandy victims in his own state.
This is the Garden, not the Lone Star State, however, and while a man like Lonegan would be a shoo-in in Texas, here in Jersey Tea Party conservatism is a fringe phenomenon. I am sure the Republican party is happy to throw a bone to their resident wing-nuts to keep them happy and obedient, but Chris Christie has already said he is not campaigning for Lonegan. You could chalk much of this up to Christie's legendary pettiness and score-settling. Lonegan ran a contentious primary against Christie in the 2009 governor's race, and there's nothing that Governor Bully loves more than crushing anyone who dares to criticize him. I also see in this decision not to get behind Lonegan Christie' deft game of staying popular in a left-leaning state by making friends with popular Democrats like Booker while distancing himself from Sun Belt-style conservatives.
Lonegan is really more of an activist than a politician and actually has very little experience in government. His one stint in public office was as mayor of Bogota, a borough of merely eight thousand souls in Bergen County. He has run unsuccessfully for statewide office on several occasions, but got his lucky break this year when no one of any stature in the state GOP cared to go up against Booker's juggernaut. A buffoon with a tiny amount of actual political experience, Lonegan is a poster child for white male privilege.
Like other recent Tea Party candidates (Christine O'Donnell, Todd Aiken, etc.) Lonegan has already made a fool out of himself, both with his opinions and with his behavior. In the waning days of the primary, his Twitter feed featured this image, intending to mock Booker's foreign policy knowledge:
call the criticism of this tweet overwrought "political correctness," as if demeaning the residents of the largest city in the state he will supposedly "represent"is a small matter. My time in New Jersey has taught me that white conservatives in this state, its governor included, view Newark and its people with absolute revulsion and contempt. Lonegan seemed to forget that Twitter is not his suburban barbershop.
That prevailing opinion among white New Jersey conservatives might help explain why he was able to get 80% of the Republican vote even after such shameful behavior. At least I no longer live in Texas, where Tea Party maniacs like Lonegan beat moderate Democrats like Booker for statewide office every time. I am glad to be here in New Jersey, where racial resentment and the Tea Party are sadly present, but on the outside looking in. That said, the fact that a man like Steve Lonegan can get nominated to run for Senator by a major party is pretty depressing.