Tuesday brings a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey, in which Newark Mayor Cory Booker is expected to beat Republican opponent Steve Lonegan, the former state director of the conservative lobbying group Americans for Prosperity. One poll last week had Booker up by 12 points; another put the lead at 16 points, down significantly from earlier in the year but not likely to vanish in just a week. Lonegan is doing little to tailor his campaign for a blue state, coming out strongly against Obamacare and opposing same-sex marriage. In mocking Booker for appealing to gay voters and for getting manicures (“I have a more peculiar fetish: I like a good Scotch and a cigar, that’s my fetish.”), the 57-year-old Lonegan seems to be pinning his hopes on being considerably younger than the average voter in the special election.
Special elections in non-presidential years don’t hold much predictive value, and New Jersey is hardly representative of the United States as a whole. Still, it has an interesting political identity that makes it worth looking at the margin and the geographic patterns in Tuesday’s vote (as well as in the November election expected to give Republican Gov. Chris Christie a second term).
New Jersey is one of four states that voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 1988 and then Democratic in every election from 1992 through 2012; the others were California, Illinois, and Vermont. This is not exactly a group of bellwethers, but three of them make up the spine of the new Democratic coalition that includes older suburbs as well as inner cities. (Vermont shows that rural New England is unlike rural anywhere else.)
New Jersey is also one of 10 states that voted for Obama last year but at the same time sent a delegation to the U.S. House that was at least half Republican. (The others: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.) Six of New Jersey’s 12 congressmen are Republican, and two—Frank LoBiondo of the most southern part of the state, and Jon Runyan, of Mount Laurel—are from districts that voted for Obama. They are also the only two Republicans in the delegation counted by the Washington Post as supporting a “clean” continuing resolution to reopen the federal government (i.e., one that doesn’t defund Obamacare or demand other concessions from the president).
The other four Republicans mostly represent the northwest part of the state, including Morris and Warren counties and a large part of Bergen County. If Booker does well in these Romney districts (either because he wins independent voters or because there’s a low, and disproportionately Democratic, turnout), it could indicate a backlash to the Republican Party’s role in forcing a shutdown of the federal government this month. And if the congressmen from those districts—Chris Smith, Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance, and Rodney Frelinghuysen react by distancing themselves from Tea Party tactics, it could be a sign that the Republican hold on the House is not as secure as most pundits assume.
But there’s also a chance that Booker will fall short of expectations. If he gets significantly fewer votes than Obama did—especially in Salem County (in LoBiondo’s district) and Somerset County, the only two to flip from George W. Bush to the Democratic ticket in 2008—the Democrats could be looking at a low-interest, low-turnout repeat of their terrible 2010.
Photo of Cory Booker from his campaign website.
Related: "Paralysis in Washington," by the Editors.