NEWARK, N.J. — Though New Jersey voters have consistently rejected Republicans — even moderate ones — running for U.S. Senate over the past 40 years, the newly nominated GOP candidate kicked off the state’s general special election Wednesday by trying to sell them on his conservative ideology with a clear anti-government message.
Republican Steve Lonegan resoundingly beat his only challenger in Tuesday’s Republican primary. He’ll face Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor and already a popular figure in the national Democratic Party, who easily won his nomination as well, for the seat vacated by Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death in June.
A dogged campaigner, Lonegan used his first news conference of the general election to attack Booker’s mayoral record, saying Booker would leave the state’s largest city with higher crime and unemployment rates than when first elected. It was the opening jab from a conservative Booker identified as “a flame thrower” in his own victory speech Tuesday.
Lonegan said his advocacy of limited government, fewer taxes and more personal liberties will resonate with voters. But in a state that has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and more unaffiliated voters than those who declare a party, even more moderate Republicans failed to win Senate races. Lonegan would be the first Republican to win in 41 years.
The special election for the remaining 15 months of Lautenberg’s term will be held Oct. 16, with unprecedented Wednesday voting ordered by Gov. Chris Christie in part to avoid Booker topping the ticket over the governor’s own re-election race three weeks later.
Booker, 44, who won the Democratic nomination over three experienced opponents, including two longtime U.S. representatives, began the day greeting rail commuters in Hoboken after a few hours of sleep. He said the race offers voters a clear choice because his rival is at “the far margin of the Republican Party.”
In an interview Wednesday, Lonegan rejected the notion that he’s in the GOP’s far-right wing.
“If Cory Booker says I’m far right and we’re 180 degrees opposite on every issue, then he must be far left,” said Lonegan, 57, who was state director of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity before resigning to run for Senate. Running against a political neophyte, got about 80 percent of the primary vote.
Though Booker has a close working relationship with Christie, the popular Republican governor said he was likely to endorse the winner of his party’s primary. Lonegan said Christie left him a voice message Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Lonegan reported that both Christie and Sen. Jeff Chiesa, the Republican caretaker Christie appointed to the seat, offered to help the campaign.
Booker, the rare New Jersey politician who was well known statewide before seeking statewide office, received about 60 percent of the primary vote. Entertainers Oprah Winfrey and Eva Longoria made campaign appearances for him.
A prolific social media user, Booker has become known through his story: He grew up in a well-off northern New Jersey suburb as the son of IBM executives, played football at Stanford, was a Rhodes Scholar and went to law school at Yale before moving into one of the toughest Newark neighborhoods and launching a career in public service.
Booker is trying to make history as the state’s first black senator. The state’s other senator, Robert Menendez, is Hispanic.
As mayor of a city known for crime, corruption and poverty, he’s courted hundreds of millions from philanthropists, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Lonegan, 57, who also grew up in suburban Bergen County and played college football, and served three terms as mayor of the small community of Bogota.