News Column

Booker, Lonegan Dominate N.J. Vote

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Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan dominated their U.S. Senate primary contests Tuesday, each winning by a large margin, setting up a clash of headline-grabbing candidates with sharply different views.

Booker, a liberal on social issues and an advocate for poor cities, defeated three established lawmakers, moving him one step closer to formally taking his national profile into national politics. He vowed to use innovation and creativity to bridge Washington's partisan divides.

"I'm going to the Senate the same way I came to Newark: determined to be a positive force," Booker said, standing alone on an outdoor stage after his victory. "I will be someone who speaks truth to power."

For Booker, the primary race, which included two well-funded congressmen, may have been his biggest hurdle as he attempts to move from long-beleaguered Newark to Capitol Hill. Given his popularity and New Jersey's liberal bent, Booker enters the general election as a huge favorite over Lonegan, a proudly right-wing firebrand.

At his victory party at Championship Plaza, Booker ran onstage pumping his fist, with an American flag behind him and symbols of Newark's downtown development on each side. On his left was a recently opened Dinosaur Bar-B-Que topped by "luxury loft" apartments. On his right was the glass facade of the New Jersey Devils' home, the Prudential Center (a project Booker once criticized).

Hip-hop legend Q-tip spun celebratory music.

"In Newark, we showed that if you put in the hard work, if you take the more difficult path, if you bring people together, if you overcome differences, incredible things can happen," Booker said. "I will be unwavering in my focus on finding common ground."

If he wins Oct. 16, Booker would be the ninth-ever African American senator and the fourth popularly elected.

With nearly all the vote counted, Booker had about 60 percent of the Democratic vote, and Lonegan had about 80 percent of the Republican vote.

Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, a small borough in Bergen County, easily beat physician Alieta Eck, who had never run before. After twice losing gubernatorial primaries, he'll finally have the chance to test his uncompromising conservative message in a statewide general election.

Speaking at a La Quinta hotel in Secaucus, Lonegan derided Booker's "Hollywood elite" supporters.

"They've never been to New Jersey before. They don't know what a real street fight is," Lonegan said. "They're about to find out real fast."

Embracing an underdog role, he compared Booker to the British during the American Revolution, with "superior funding and the whole British crown behind them."

"But they lost to a ragtag group of rebels, you remember that," he said to cheers from a couple of hundred supporters. Beside him were his wife, Lorraine, and two adult daughters.

After an odd midsummer primary campaign, Lonegan and Booker will run a similarly brief sprint to the special general election. Gov. Christie set the unusual election dates in early June after longtime Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg died in office.

Booker is a rising Democratic star, often mentioned as a future presidential contender, with famous friends, wealthy supporters, and a national following -- despite sharp criticisms from opponents who say his tangible achievements don't match his fame.

Along with Christie, he is one of New Jersey's two nationally known politicians.

Lonegan is less glamorous. The former head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a tea party-aligned activist group, he has twice been rejected by GOP primary voters and became the favorite in this race when more moderate, establishment Republicans chose to sit out.

He poses a different type of challenge from the Democrats who ran against Booker. While Booker's party colleagues were slow to attack, Lonegan is always eager for confrontation and has a talent for political showmanship.

Booker said he would "match his negative attacks with positive vision," though Democratic groups were already lining up attacks.

Lonegan has a devoted conservative following but will have to reach far beyond his own base.

New Jersey has 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. A Quinnipiac poll released last Wednesday gave Booker a 54-29 lead over Lonegan, and the Newark mayor had $4.1 million on hand as of late July, compared with $151,000 for Lonegan.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who repeatedly said he would fight for Lautenberg's legacy, vowed to return to Congress "to make sure the families and little guy are who we are looking out for."

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, in Princeton, criticized the primary schedule, calling the campaign "all too brief," but said his candidacy moved the race beyond "platitudes and rhetoric."

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver finished last in the Democratic race.

Both Booker and Lonegan enter the special general election matchup nursing wounds from the primary's final days.

Booker's financial dealings have come under scrutiny after revelations that an Internet start-up he partially owns received generous funding from Silicon Valley moguls, potentially making the mayor wealthy, and that while in office he kept receiving income from his former law firm, even as the firm won contracts from Newark authorities that Booker had some influence over.

Lonegan, meanwhile, has been trying to tamp down criticism over a racially charged tweet his campaign sent out last week. Lonegan said there was no racist intent and has dismissed the issue as a "tempest in a teapot."

Booker's campaign and even Christie -- who is running as a moderate Republican -- have been critical. The tweet was quickly deleted but could still feed into Democrats' argument that Lonegan is too divisive to represent a multicultural state such as New Jersey.

The tweet was labeled as Booker's foreign policy debate prep notes and featured a map of Newark with parts labeled "West Africa, Guyana, Portugal, Brazil."

Also Tuesday, six independent candidates filed to run in the special general election.

Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog "Capitol Inq" at www.inquirer.com/CapitolInq.

Inquirer staff writers Andrew Seidman, Sean Carlin and Theodore Schleifer contributed to this article.

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(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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