UPDATED - Cory Booker is one step closer to the Senate, cruising to the Democratic nomination in a low-turnout special primary election on Tuesday.
The Newark mayor rolled to an expected easy win over his three other competitors in the contest to succeed the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg. With most precincts reporting, the Associated Press called the race for Booker who was leading with almost 60% of the vote. Rep. Frank Pallone was second with just under 20% followed by Rep. Rush Holt at 16% and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver with only 5%.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Booker thanked and praised his Democratic opponents, and said he planned to bring a new style of politics to Washington.
“They say we are being naïve, to them I say have you ever met us, do you know where I’ve been working for the last seven years. This is Newark, New Jersey, and we don’t do naïve," he said.
Now, the popular celebrity mayor has just over two months until he’s on the ballot next, where he’ll face Republican Steve Lonegan. The former Bogota mayor and conservative activist won the GOP nomination over physician and first time candidate Alieta Eck. Lonegan, who is legally blind, unsuccessfully challenged Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary.
Booker is the heavy favorite to defeat the newly-minted GOP nominee in the Oct. 16 special general election, and the latest Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Booker topping Lonegan by 25 points.
After Booker's win, Democrats praised their new nominee, while quickly painting Lonegan as outside the mainstream.
"Republicans have chosen to nominate an extreme, Tea Party candidate, and I am confident New Jersey will resoundingly elect Cory Booker to the U.S. Senate in October and again next November," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet said in a statement.
The GOP's campaign arm, though, called Lonegan "just the type of commonsense conservative we need," and slammed Booker more concerned with his own image than New Jersey voters.
"The last thing the Senate needs is another show horse who is more concerned with self promotion than governing," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran said -- echoing a refrain Pallone had picked up in the Democratic contest.
The winner of the October contest will serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term. The seat is being temporarily filled by Republican Jeffrey Chiesa, the state’s former attorney general, who was Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s interim pick. If Booker wins, the balance of power in the Senate would return to a 55-45 advantage for Democrats, meaning Republicans need to win six seats in next year’s midterms to gain control of the upper chamber.
If Booker clears the next hurdle, he would face voters again in 2014 for a full six-year term. Christie set the controversial special election timeline -- with the costly special election slated just three weeks before regularly scheduled statewide elections on Nov. 5 -- saying, he wanted to give voters a choice as soon as possible. But he’s faced criticism from both sides who think the possible 2016 White House hopeful also didn’t want to risk what is expected to be a big re-election margin for him in November by holding concurrent contests.
The shortened time 10-week sprint to the Democratic primary may have helped Booker, who has a close relationship with the GOP governor, the most. The Twitter-savvy and energetic politician had the highest statewide name ID and a heavy financial advantage over his competitors, and he never relinquished his early lead. Booker had already announced he was running for the open seat in 2014, but he did so even before Lautenberg announced in February he wouldn’t run again, bristling the senior senator and many of his allies.
But when the 89-year-old passed away in June, the timeline was suddenly put into high gear. This race was a free pass for his challengers, who didn’t have to give up their congressional or legislative seats to run in the special contest.
But the trio still couldn’t make headway against Booker, who even faced questions over his finances in the race's final week. Each tried, but all three were hamstrung by the crowded race, and no one viable alternative to Booker ever emerged. Pallone had the backing of Lautenberg’s family, who praised him as a “workhorse” in the face of “showhorse” Booker. Holt tried to woo the progressive crowd, talking about privacy issues and how he would work to stop controversial NSA surveillance programs. And Oliver, who was hamstrung at the beginning by the ongoing legislative session, said the Garden State needed a female representative in Washington.