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.