New Jersey voters took a step closer to choosing a new United States senator Tuesday, picking Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan to face off in an October special election.
Tuesday's vote capped a frantic two-month scramble for votes consistently led by Booker, the popular Newark mayor, and Lonegan, a former Bogota mayor with ties to the Koch brothers. Booker easily defeated Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt, and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Lonegan beat physician Alieta Eck.
Booker captured 18 of the state's 21 counties in his landslide win. Pallone, the second-place Democrat, easily won his home county of Monmouth, but lost to Booker in Middlesex County, which he has long represented in Congress. Holt, the third-place finisher, captured his home county of Mercer and also won in Hunterdon County, which he has represented in Congress.
Oliver, who struggled the entire campaign with low fundraising and largely unknown name recognition statewide, finished fourth in all but her home county of Essex, where she placed third, behind Booker and Pallone. Booker's Newark home is also in Essex County. Oliver finished fourth in the state's rural counties, which she touted during her campaign.
On the Republican side, Lonegan easily captured all 21 counties. Eck did best in Somerset County, where she has long operated a health care clinic with her husband. Eck's other strong performances were in counties along the state's Route 22 corridor, which includes Somerset County, where she concentrated much of her effort.
The death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) in June led Gov. Chris Christie (R) to call an unusual August primary, followed by an Oct. 16 special election. Christie's decision to call the two elections, costing $24 million, was criticized by Democrats who wanted the vote to be in November when voters will decide on a governor. Democrats accused Christie, who leads Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by 30 points in the gubernatorial race, of not wanting to share a ballot with Booker. The governor has said this is untrue.
Polls show Booker leading Lonegan by a large margin in the Oct. 16 special election. The winner will serve 14 months, the remainder of Lautenberg's term.
Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin (D) told PolitickerNJ.com that the election may have had the lowest turnout in state history.
Booker's primary victory comes after garnering quick endorsements from Democratic leaders across New Jersey. The two-term Newark mayor already was campaigning for the Senate seat prior to Lautenberg's death. Booker remained largely above the fray through the entire primary, focusing on events with voters statewide. He stressed his ability to work with Republicans, pushing his record in Newark, and described himself as a Washington outsider.
His rivals took pains to establish themselves as Booker's main progressive challenger. Pallone emphasized his two decades in Congress, including his work in writing Obamacare and on environmental issues. Holt stressed his work on education and background as a scientist and seemed to delight in positioning himself as the anti-Booker. Oliver highlighted the need to elect more women and mentioned her visits to the state's sparsely populated rural counties.
Booker withstood a series of attacks in the race including being hit by Pallone and Holt for his support of school vouchers in Newark. Booker also withstood articles in the last week detailing money given to him by Silicon Valley executives for a technology start-up he cofounded and about payments he received from his former law firm while mayor.
The Lautenberg family attempted to change the election by supporting Pallone. Josh Lautenberg, the late senator's son, told HuffPost that his father did not like Booker and would have endorsed Pallone had he lived. Booker is backed by Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, who was a senior aide to Lautenberg.
On the Republican side, Lonegan's nomination marks a turnaround for him. Lonegan, who led Democratic Bogota for 12 years, is one of the state's most conservative politicians and spent seven years running the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the group with ties to the Koch brothers. He said the New Jersey chapter was not financed by the Kochs.
Lonegan lost bids for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2005 and 2009, where he was not embraced by the state's largely moderate Republican establishment. The statewide bids and AFP gave Lonegan a grassroots network statewide, particularly with the tea party.
He emerged as the GOP frontrunner after a series of top Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, declined to run. Lonegan, who stressed his opposition to Obamacare and Common Core education standards, quickly garnered endorsements from establishment Republicans.
Lonegan withstood criticism in the primary's final days about a racially charged tweet a 21-year-old staffer posted to the campaign's official account. Lonegan criticized the tweet, which was deleted, but then said he would not fire the staffer. He also dismissed the debate over the tweet as "politically correct nonsense."
This article has been updated with complete results.