Sarah Palin's endorsing Lonegan thrills both parties

Republican senatorial candidate Steve Lonegan at a political forum last month.
Republican senatorial candidate Steve Lonegan at a political forum last month. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2013

As political strife consumed Washington last week, New Jersey provided a moment of bipartisan agreement, right in the heat of a Senate campaign.

Sarah Palin endorsed Republican candidate Steve Lonegan on Wednesday - thrilling Democrats and Republicans alike.

For Lonegan, who trails Democrat Cory Booker in name recognition and fund-raising but is polling closer than expected, the nod from Palin got him free publicity and a star name to rally conservatives.

He had previously won backing from two other champions of the right, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

"I'm galvanizing the entire Republican Party," Lonegan said Friday, "every part, and independent voters and those of us who share even the slightest bit in our principles."

To Booker, though, the Palin-Paul-Perry trifecta played into his emerging strategy for the campaign's final weeks: to aggressively paint Lonegan as a conservative whose views are out of sync with New Jersey's more liberal leanings. Palin gave Booker a high-profile target who might rile the left as much as the right.

"The people who would be swayed by those endorsements should already be in the Lonegan camp," said Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University. "If you're an undecided Democrat, if you have doubts about Booker, these endorsements, they're going to drive you right back into the Booker camp."

The Booker camp hopes so, anyway.

A day before Palin's endorsement, Booker launched a television ad calling Lonegan "too extreme for New Jersey." Next, Booker's campaign sent out a list of hard-right quotes from Lonegan and Palin side by side. And Friday, a Booker fund-raising e-mail began simply:

"Dear Friend, Our opponent just announced that Sarah Palin is endorsing him."

"Sending my opponent down to Washington to join a fringe group of tea partyers would make what's wrong with Washington worse," Booker said at a Friday debate against Lonegan. He used a version of extreme in nearly every debate answer.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 732,000, where no Republican has been elected to the Senate since 1972, and where President Obama won by 15 and 18 points, Lonegan needs to peel off swing voters and moderate Democrats to win.

And as the GOP's official nominee, he might have a better chance to do that than in previous races, when he ran as the conservative alternative to more mainstream Republicans, Harrison said.

But, she added, "the Paul endorsement or the Palin endorsement don't carry a lot of weight" with undecided voters.

Palin, however, played down the challenges of winning in New Jersey.

"I encourage voters in New Jersey to give Steve a look and not believe those in the media who tell us conservatives can't win in certain areas!" she said in her endorsement, released by the Lonegan campaign.

Lonegan, in an interview, said Palin "helps raise money, helps get people energized."

Lonegan had $241,282 on hand as of the end of September, compared with $2.63 million for Booker.

Carl Golden, a former spokesman for Republican New Jersey Govs. Thomas H. Kean and Christie Whitman, said the Palin-Perry-Paul backing would help Lonegan, because people already knew his conservative views.

"The thing about Steve is, he really makes no apologies for who he is, what he believes in," Golden said. "He doesn't dance around those issues, so bringing in folks of like minds, like Gov. Perry, like Paul, like Palin, doesn't raise any great issues for him."

Palin backed Lonegan in a news release and on social media, but there were no plans for her to come to New Jersey to campaign.

As of Friday evening, 13,864 people had "liked" Palin's Lonegan endorsement on her Facebook page. (That paled next to many of her other recent postings, however.)

Lonegan has also been endorsed by Gov. Christie, who is widely seen as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. But the governor's most recent public appearance with a Senate hopeful was beside Booker.

In an event that was billed as nonpolitical but still raised eyebrows this close to Election Day, Booker and Christie cut a ribbon in late September at a major Newark development, bolstering their bipartisan credentials (even though each has vowed to help his respective opponent).

Booker has formal backing from Obama, and Vice President Biden is scheduled Friday to campaign for him.

Lonegan pointed to two other people supporting Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and ex-Newark Mayor Sharpe James, a former Booker nemesis, who ended his career in jail but issued a surprising recent endorsement. (The James nod did not appear to be part of an orchestrated campaign effort and was not promoted by the Booker camp.)

"I'll put Sarah Palin up against Rahm Emanuel and Sharpe James any day," Lonegan said.

Any energy and money Palin brings Lonegan will be crucial in this unusual special election, being held Oct. 16, when the campaigns will have to work hard to get voters to the polls.

"Sarah Palin, like it or not," Golden said, "still can whip some folks up out there."

On both sides of the aisle.


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.inquirer.com/

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