Christie is slow to embrace Lonegan

Steve Lonegan is "the perfect candidate" as a heavy underdog, a former state GOP chairman says. "You need someone who's going to go and try to throw some aggressive elbows."
Steve Lonegan is "the perfect candidate" as a heavy underdog, a former state GOP chairman says. "You need someone who's going to go and try to throw some aggressive elbows." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2013

Steve Lonegan decisively won New Jersey Republicans' U.S. Senate nomination last week, but full-throated support from the party's leader might be another story.

Gov. Christie, New Jersey's dominant political figure, has pledged to endorse the winner of the GOP primary, and Lonegan said the governor could do so this week. But as Christie campaigns for reelection in November and tries to build a national image as a pragmatic leader with bipartisan appeal, he is unlikely to fully embrace Lonegan, an unyielding conservative firebrand.

As of Friday, Christie had not made any public comment on Lonegan's primary win Tuesday - not even a written statement acknowledging the victory - and a Christie spokesman said the governor had not finalized any events with the nominee.

"I don't think the energies of the Republican Party are particularly focused on Steve Lonegan's candidacy," Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said.

Instead, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, has been the one emphasizing his relationship with the popular governor. He has endorsed some of Christie's biggest initiatives, giving both men a bipartisan, cooperative sheen and Booker a recurring talking point.

"We've pulled together with the governor," Booker said the morning after the primary. "I could write a dissertation on our disagreements, but we found a way to get things done."

Booker cryptically added, "You're going to see some very interesting supporters from the Republican Party" endorsing him, hinting at an election strategy similar to Christie's: compiling backers from across the aisle, helping himself and undercutting his opponent.

Booker's aides would not elaborate on the rumored GOP support.

Lonegan, though, said he expected Christie's help. In an interview on NJTV's On the Record, he said Christie was tentatively set to appear with him Tuesday.

"I have the entire Republican Party behind me," Lonegan said in an interview recorded Friday.

Beyond the endorsement, few expect Christie to deploy his full political muscle for Lonegan, especially while he runs his own race against State Sen. Barbara Buono.

Christie and Lonegan have had a rocky relationship. Lonegan ran as an alternative to Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary and has criticized some of the governor's decisions for being insufficiently conservative.

For most New Jersey Republicans trying to score an upset over Booker, the Senate race's overwhelming favorite, one obvious strategy would be to cling to Christie and vow to bring his popular style to Washington.

Lonegan, though, represents a more ideological brand of GOP politics, and Christie is walking a fine line. He has to back his party's nominee or risk outrage from national Republicans.

But he has his own contest to win just weeks after the Oct. 16 Senate special election, and sticking too close to Lonegan could provide ammunition for opponents who want to paint him as out of step with New Jersey's values.

His campaign also has consumed most of Republicans' talent, money, and effort.

"Steve finds himself sharing an electoral stage with a player who attracts all of the spotlight," former New Jersey Republican Party chairman Tom Wilson said. "Trying to get folks to spend some time thinking about him is going to be a challenge."

Christie, meanwhile, will be forced to respond to Lonegan's often-controversial broadsides, which included telling the Bergen Record on Thursday that he considered the Southern Poverty Law Center an "atheistic hate group."

When Christie was asked last week about a racially charged tweet sent by the Lonegan campaign, the governor called the tweet "inflammatory" and said he would have fired the staffer, which Lonegan did not do.

Lonegan and Booker's contrasting interaction with the governor is perhaps the most unusual in a race full of contrasts.

Both candidates are political showmen, among the best in the state. But their oratory reflects different styles.

Booker speaks in gauzy, utopian terms.

"It's not naive to believe the truth that the people united can never be defeated," he said in his victory speech in Newark, where hip-hop performer Q-Tip spun the music. "American history is a glorious testimony to people coming together and achieving what others thought was impossible."

Lonegan is all hard edges. His speech in Secaucus quoted Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Booker, 44, mayor of New Jersey's largest city, has always seemed destined for big things: He went to Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law and already has been identified as a potential key fund-raiser for Democrats as they try to hold the Senate in 2014.

Lonegan, 57, has long been an outsider, a staunch conservative in a state where establishment Republicans push to the center. He went to William Paterson and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities, and was a three-term mayor in Bogota, Bergen County, population: 8,000.

A two-time loser in gubernatorial primaries, he relishes the underdog role and is at his best on the attack.

That might be the biggest danger for Booker.

Lonegan is "basically the perfect candidate for this situation," Wilson said. "You need someone who's going to go and try to throw some aggressive elbows."

Even in a losing fight, Lonegan could scuff Booker's well-polished image, and perhaps leave lasting marks on a candidate with big ambitions.

Already Lonegan has held news conferences attacking Booker's record on crime and jobs, and questioning Waywire, the mayor's controversial start-up financed by tech moguls.

Booker has not faced an opponent this aggressive since running in 2002 against former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who accused his young opponent of being white, Jewish, gay, and Republican.

Booker, though, typically does not do down-and-dirty politics, at least not with his own hands.

"He can be very sensitive in some ways about criticism," said Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and author of a forthcoming book about Booker, Newark, and post-racial politics. "Mostly his staff kind of shields him and protects him."

Rough campaigning, Wharton said, does not come naturally to Booker.

Others, though, are happy to supply the dirt. The Democratic American Bridge PAC already has tried to push Lonegan to the forefront as "the current face of the rebranded GOP" and an example of the party's "extreme rhetoric" so it can wield his words against other Republicans.

Each candidate has tried to paint the other as extreme.

"This is a very clear choice for voters," Booker said the morning after the primary.

Lonegan said, "You could not ask for a starker difference."

It may be the rare thing they agree on.


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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