Despite landslide, Lonegan's turnout shows weakness

Republican Steve Lonegan , former mayor of Bogota, speaks to a sparse media turnout in the parking lot of a Cherry Hill auto body shop the day after his primary win. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Republican Steve Lonegan , former mayor of Bogota, speaks to a sparse media turnout in the parking lot of a Cherry Hill auto body shop the day after his primary win. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 16, 2013

NEWARK, N.J. - Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan both won easily Tuesday in New Jersey's U.S. Senate primaries, but the numbers behind their victories tell very different stories about their trajectories.

On a rainy summer day when few were expected at the polls, Booker showed the upside of his celebrity status. In winning nearly 211,000 votes despite facing three credible opponents, the Democratic Newark mayor beat pundits' turnout predictions and showed an organizational ability many say he lacks.

Lonegan, by contrast, won just over 103,000 votes while facing a virtually unknown rival. He fell far short of the tallies scored by the last two Republican Senate primary winners who ran with similarly minute opposition, and overall GOP turnout was anemic - the second lowest in a primary since 1925.

The big haul for Booker and paltry showing for Lonegan reflect huge gaps in finances and party enthusiasm heading into the brief race to the Oct. 16 special general election, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

"Everything that came out of this race is a positive indication for Cory Booker," Murray said. "On the other side, it's the other story."

Lonegan even fell short of his own losing tally in the 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary, when he won 141,000 votes - 37 percent more than Tuesday - despite falling to Gov. Christie.

"That's an indication that his own base isn't enthusiastic about him," Murray said. "It's all an indication that this race is going to be near-impossible for him to win."

The primary came amid difficult and unusual circumstances. It fell as many people enjoyed summer vacations, and on a day when downpours swamped large parts of the state, likely discouraging people from venturing to the polls.

The candidates had only two months to prepare and the Democratic race featured four established officials with money to spend, while the Republican race received scant attention.

"We didn't have four candidates spending millions and millions of dollars turning out the vote," Lonegan said.

His own lack of resources, though, is another sign of tepid support. Nearly all New Jersey Republican energy has poured into reelecting Christie in November with a landslide.

Even with the unusual primary day and a clear path to victory for Lonegan - he didn't need a big turnout to win and got around 80 percent of the vote - Murray said "primaries are indications of the enthusiasm of your base, and there's a minimum number of votes you should be able to get if your base is enthusiastic."

He pointed to the 2009 gubernatorial race, when Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine won fewer than 155,000 primary votes. It foreshadowed limp party support, and Corzine lost the general election.

In recent GOP Senate primaries that featured a clear favorite - like this one - State Sens. Thomas H. Kean Jr. and Joseph Kyrillos took about 130,000 and 164,000 votes, respectively, in 2006 and 2012.

Lonegan reported high energy at his victory celebration Tuesday at a Secaucus La Quinta hotel. On Wednesday, though, as he appeared in Newark, his audience consisted of six reporters and a few aides.

Standing in the center of one of the most redeveloped corners of the city - site of the Prudential Center hockey arena, new lofts, a Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and Booker's victory speech the previous night - Lonegan said the Democrat fostered "phony job growth" with tax breaks and subsidies for the big businesses around him.

"It's capitalism vs. socialism," Lonegan said.

He painted Booker as a left-wing extremist while also arguing that the Democrat is aligned with the Wall Street elite, favoring government bailouts for big companies. Lonegan pushed a similar message later at Rodi's Auto Body in Cherry Hill, with one reporter present.

"The only jobs that Cory Booker has created in Newark have been through taxpayer-subsidized corporate welfare programs," Lonegan said.

He also called for a five- to seven-year sunset on Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency regulations to ease burdens on small businesses.

Booker began the day with an early stop at a Hoboken train station, greeting commuters. A crush of cameras and print reporters surrounded him as passersby lined up for photos with the famous mayor.

He ribbed one fan named "Corey" about all the time he wastes writing the extra "e" in his name.

Booker took a handful of soft questions - less than five minutes' worth - and declined to answer one question about his ownership stake in Waywire, an Internet start-up backed by tech moguls.

"I'm not going to tell you that today," Booker said, adding that he would speak about it more at another time.

Instead, Booker contrasted his support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights with Lonegan's opposition to both. He talked up "strategic investment" by government to build infrastructure and create jobs.

"It's going to be a very stark choice for voters," Booker said.

He added that "some very interesting" GOP supporters would back him "because Steve Lonegan is on the far margin of the Republican Party."

The Democratic American Bridge PAC tried to cement that point late Tuesday with a Web page featuring some of Lonegan's most hard-edged statements, on disaster relief, health care, taxes, guns, and other topics.

Lonegan fired back at the idea that he is "on the far margin" of the GOP.

"Since we're 180 degrees opposite on every issue, that must mean he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party," Lonegan said in Newark, undeterred by the small crowd.

His challenge will be getting Republicans to embrace the fight with the same level of energy.


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

Inquirer staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.

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