Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who harnessed the power of social media to gain fame far beyond his city, is heading to Washington after winning a special election to fill New Jersey’s open U.S. Senate seat.
With 95% of precincts reporting, Booker was leading Republican opponent Steve Lonegan, 55% to 44%. The seat had long been held by Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg, who died in June.
Booker will be one of two African Americans serving in the U.S. Senate, joining Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina.
Booker spoke optimistically during a victory speech at the Prudential Center in Newark, thanking supporters for coming out to vote on a Wednesday in October at a time when many Americans are fed up with politics.
“Despite the cynicism and the negativity we often see on TV, despite a special election, New Jerseyans, hundreds of thousands, rejected all that and came out and voted,” he said. “But more than that, you didn’t just vote, but you believed that your voice and your vote mattered.”
Though Booker won, his margin of victory was smaller than some polls had predicted.
That’s partly because he didn’t engage enough with voters and spent weeks away from the state raising money elsewhere, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
That allowed Lonegan to raise an oft-repeated criticism of Booker: that he’s more concerned with his national reputation than with local voters.
“The margin could have been wider, but people really weren’t enthusiastic about Cory Booker, so they stayed home,” Murray said.
But Booker successfully argued that Lonegan’s tea party views were out of step with the state, which has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
The special election, oddly timed three weeks before another election in New Jersey, had the lowest turnout of any election for a statewide seat in the last century, Murray said.
Booker tried in the days leading up to the election to use the federal government shutdown to cast himself as a moderate who is willing to compromise. He was best known before this election as a mayor with famous friends -- such as Oprah Winfrey -- who went from Stanford to Oxford and back to the inner city.
Lonegan, a legally blind former mayor of Bogota, N.J., has not shied from his conservative positions. He spoke repeatedly about his support for the government shutdown and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
He was the state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by the Koch brothers, and held a rally last weekend with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.
He said he planned to return to the private sector after the election.
“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the message we delivered together ... did not win the day,” he said to supporters in Bridgewater, N.J., according to the Associated Press.
Democrats have an advantage in statewide voter registration: One-third of voters are registered Democrats and 20% are Republicans. But pollsters said in preelection surveys that the election’s odd timing made predictions of voter turnout difficult.
Republicans may have fared better with a more moderate candidate, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie blocked anyone else from running, wanting GOP support focused on his reelection effort next month, Murray said.
“A lot of Democrats may decide to vote for Cory Booker and sit out on the losing gubernatorial campaign,” he said.
Booker will have to run again next year to defend his seat. Though party leaders will probably push the charismatic Booker to become a face of the Democratic Party, he’ll need to work hard to keep voters happy at home too, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“He’s going to have to keep his head down, do a lot of constituent service and build up more trust,” Dworkin said. “I don’t think we’ll necessarily see him gallivanting around the country.”