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Booker sails to victory over Lonegan

The Newark mayor sails to victory
Newark Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker leaves a polling station after casting his ballot during the Senate primary election in Newark, New Jersey, October 16, 2013.
Newark Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker leaves a polling station after casting his ballot during the Senate primary election in Newark, New Jersey, October 16, 2013.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker will soon be headed to Washington as the next New Jersey senator.

The Democratic nominee bested Republican Steve Lonegan in Wednesday’s special election to succeed the late Frank Lautenberg. With just over half of the vote in, the Associated Press called the race for Booker, who was leading 55%-44%. 

The high-profile mayor, who has touted his ability to bring people together (while growing his own social media presence and popularity), will head to a polarized Washington where he’s certain to be a rising star within the Democratic Party and another outsized presence in D.C.

With his win, Booker becomes the first African-American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama--only the fourth popularly elected black senator since Reconstruction. (South Carolina's Tim Scott, a Republican, was named to fill the seat vacated by Jim DeMint.)

In his victory speech, Booker echoed the familiar refrains of faith in government and public service, even as the Senate he’s set to enter is more divided than ever. But he said he found hope in so many supporters turning out on a Wednesday to vote for him.

"Despite the cynicism and the negativity we often see on TV, despite a special election, New Jerseyans, hundreds of thousands, rejected all that and came out and voted," said Booker. "But more than that, you didn't just vote, but you believed that your voice and your vote mattered. You believe that you don't have to resign yourself to what's wrong, but you can do something — we can do something to make it right."

Booker said he had been told it would be too hard to turn around a faltering Newark too, and that he was looking forward to the challenge he now faces in the Senate.

“I’m going down to make the Senate more accessible to all of us,” said the senator-elect. “I will bring more voices to the voiceless, and I will be dogged, determined, relentless and unfaltering in my sense of service to all of New Jersey.”

In lauding his win, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn't even wait until the race was officially called to put out a statement on his anticipated victory.

“Tonight’s election is a repudiation of the Tea Party’s reckless agenda and a Republican party that grants too much influence to people on the fringes," said DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet, just after the Senate voted to move forward on a proposal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. The state's interim appointed senator, former Republican Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, had voted to move the bill forward. 

After easily winning a four-way Democratic primary in August, Booker was expected to have a clear path to win the election. But some stumbles along the way and tightening poll numbers drew scrutiny to the race in its final days. While he was leading by 11 points when the race was called in his favor, early polls had shown him up by more than 20 points, but Booker's campaign had said they long expected that lead to tighten. 

Booker was dinged late last month after it was revealed he had exchanged direct messages with an Oregon stripper. The mayor dismissed it, saying it was just part of his active social media presence and that he hadn’t scrutinized her profile.

Booker has also faced lingering questions over his finances, including his stake in an internet video company and payouts he received from his former law firm, who got contracts with the city. And the validity of other anecdotes he’s used on the trail, including a story of a former drug dealer, “T-Bone,” he later befriended, have been called into question.

The contest between the two men was bitter. In debates and on the campaign trail, Lonegan took aim at Booker’s record in Newark, arguing that crime hadn’t dropped and the city hadn’t prospered as much as Booker liked to portray. In one exchange, Lonegan claimed there were  “bodies floating around of shooting victims” in the Passaic River during Booker’s tenure as mayor. Lonegan also jabbed at the mayor’s celebrity and said  Newark needed “a leader, not a tweeter.” Booker has more than a million Twitter followers.

But Booker returned fire with negative ads reminding voters of Lonegan's “extreme” social views. In debates, he repeatedly pointed to Lonegan’s anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage views and said he belonged with the "fringe Tea Party” that forced the government shutdown over defunding Obamacare. For good measure, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Political Action Committee stepped in to spend $1 million for ads in support of Booker.

Lonegan didn’t play the role of the New England Republican moderate who could have taken advantage of missteps and a tightening race. In the final weekend, he brought in Sarah Palin and conservative radio host Mark Levin to rally for him. And he had his own unflattering press reports to deal with too, after his campaign manager Rick Shaftan was dismissed after giving a profanity-laced interview that trashed Booker and questioned his sexuality. 

Booker acknowledged it’s been a tough week for him, after his father, Cary, passed away last Thursday after a stroke. While took a hiatus from the campaign trail on Friday, he returned for the final stretch. And, Booker said, he knew he was “here in spirit."

“My dad and my mom taught me,” said Booker, “you can’t have extraordinary success without personally putting forward extraordinary effort.”