- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Back in the summer, few in New Jersey raised an eyebrow when the police commissioner in Newark reporting to Mayor Cory A. Booker suddenly imposed a policy refusing to assist federal officials trying to deport illegal immigrants.

In other states, the move could have been political kryptonite for Mr. Booker, but not in New Jersey, where he went on to win the Democratic nomination for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, and appears headed for a victory over Republican Steve Lonegan in next week’s special election.

Mr. Lonegan, a small-business owner and former mayor of the Bergen County borough of Bogota, has struggled to make charges stick against his better-known and better-funded opponent. He has lodged attacks against Mr. Booker for spending time at out-of-state fundraisers, his ties to President Obama, and even a brief foray to criticize the Newark mayor for the immigration policy.

Polls show the race tightening but seemingly well beyond the Republican’s reach. A Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday gave Mr. Booker a 12 percentage-point lead and showed that the hottest issue of the race — Mr. Booker’s Twitter relationship with an attractive stripper — hasn’t hurt him.

“From the public standpoint, it is not all that clear what the issues are other than Lonegan is anti-government and supportive of the government shutdown and that Booker is saying that the government can do good things,” said David P. Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The seat opened this year with the death of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat and the last remaining World War II veteran to serve in the upper chamber.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, tapped Jeffrey S. Chiesa, the state’s Republican attorney general, to the seat, and set up an Oct. 16 special election to fill out the rest of Mr. Lautenberg’s term, which ends next year. Whoever wins the contest will have to decide whether to defend the seat in the 2014 election.

With polls narrowing, Democrats and other Booker allies are sending in financial reinforcements. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced this week his Independence USA political action committee was bankrolling a campaign ad for Mr. Booker.

But political observers say it will be nearly impossible for Mr. Lonegan to overcome Mr. Booker’s lead, particularly because there are 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.

“The assumption remains that Cory Booker is likely to win this, though he may not win by the kind of margin that was earlier anticipated and that most people believe that is because he has not run much of a campaign,” Mr. Redlawsk said.

Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, said the seat is “solid Democratic.”

“While a couple of reliable polls have shown some closure, Booker is still above 50 percent, and has a considerably greater presence on television, which is critical in New Jersey,” Ms. Duffy said.

Rick Shaftan, a Lonegan spokesman, said the polls are misleading because turnout is unpredictable in special elections.

“We are in a neck-and-neck race,” said Rick Shaftan, a Lonegan spokesman. “This is a turnout race.”

Mr. Booker cruised to victory in the Democratic primary and has spent a lot of time outside the state at fundraisers hosted by the likes of Matt Damon and Oprah Winfrey — opening him up to criticism that he is more interested in his national celebrity than in governance.

Mr. Booker’s message, meanwhile, has been muddled at times by the attention that was given to his sexuality and to the private messages he sent via Twitter to a stripper in Oregon. He also has been accused of exaggerating stories for political gain and to bolster his status as a quasi-celebrity.

But with his lead dipping in the polls, Mr. Booker has refocused his attention on Mr. Lonegan, rolling out his first negative campaign ad, and casting the Republican as a tea party extremist who is out of sync with most New Jersey voters. “My opponent is going to make everything wrong with Washington even worse,” Mr. Booker said in their first debate over the weekend.

The Bloomberg ad, meanwhile, paints Mr. Booker as a post-partisan figure and highlights his role in the Bloomberg-led Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has called for tighter gun control laws.

Booker has taken on the NRA and will fight for background checks and to get illegal guns off our streets,” the narrator in the ad says.

Mr. Lonegan rebounded from losses in two gubernatorial primary races to capture the GOP Senate nomination.

A stalwart supporter of tea party causes and former head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Mr. Lonegan has tried to link Mr. Booker to Mr. Obama and said Mr. Booker is a radical who backs liberal policies that will hurt New Jersey.

The Republican also has tried to exploit Newark’s liberal immigration policies, after the city this summer became the first in the state to opt out of the federal Secure Communities program designed to promote local law enforcement cooperation against illegal immigrants. Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio signed a directive in July saying city police no longer would comply with federal immigration enforcement requests to hold suspects accused of lesser crimes such as shoplifting or vandalism.

The Booker campaign defended the change, telling the Newark Star-Ledger it would improve relations between the police and the city’s large immigrant community and focus local law enforcement efforts on “the real bad guys.”

But Mr. Lonegan told the paper that Mr. Booker was engaged in “political grandstanding” and said the mayor was implying, “You can come to this country illegally, you can shoplift, you can vandalize, but it’s all right.”

Mr. Lonegan wants to repeal Obamacare, dismantle the Internal Revenue Service and eliminate the Department of Education.

Mr. Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have endorsed Mr. Lonegan.

Mr. Redlawsk said Mr. Lonegan’s best — and likely only — chance of pulling off an upset hinges on the unpredictable nature of turnout in special elections.

“If there is ever a time that someone who is out of sync with the majority can win, it is in the environment of a special election,” he said.

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