Cory Booker Announces Campaign For Senate
Cory Booker is in the race for New Jersey's open Senate seat, but is he really unbeatable?
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced his entry into the race for the Democratic nomination for the late Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat today:
Cory Booker this morning officially declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
The Newark mayor put an end to days of speculation that he would enter a growing field of Democrats running an August special primary election to fill the seat left vacant by the death on Monday of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Booker made the announcement at a press conference in the city he runs, where his hands-on approach and charming ways have catapulted him to the national spotlight.
“I am here because I believe people who care can find solutions to even the most difficult problems. I am here because, when we work together, I know from experience that there is no problems we can’t solve,” Booker said. “I am here today because I know who we are and what we are capable of doing together for New Jersey and for this nation.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) introduced Booker, saying it was an honor that Booker was running for the seat Bradley once held.
“I believe the right kind of politics allows us to see something bigger than ourselves,” Bradley said. “It allows politicians to appeal to our better nature. And it allows citizens to have faith in their neighbors, in people, in humankind. The reason I am here today is because I believe Cory Booker embodies that kind of politics and is that kind of leader.
“I think he can be a great United States senator,” Bradley added.
Booker paid tribute to Lautenberg, calling him “truly a giant in the United States Senate.”
The 44-year-old Booker had previously filed paperwork to run in the 2014 Senate election, but had not officially declared his candidacy when Lautenberg died. Many in the political world considered it all but a certainty he would win a Democratic primary next year.
But Gov. Chris Christie’s plans to replace Lautenberg – an August primary and October general election – “throws a monkey wrench” in what were probably carefully laid plans for a candidacy, Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, said this week.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily clear that it’s Cory Booker,” Dworkin said of the Democratic primary winner. “I think the governor assumed it was going to be Cory Booker. But again, low turnout, the middle of August, Booker has distinct advantages, but not as many as he would have in 2014.”
Most outside observers, myself included, have assumed that the Democratic nomination for the Senate in 2014 was likely going to be Booker’s to lose, and that’s likely true. As noted above, however, the situation is significantly changed with a Primary Election only two months away, and a General Election only two months after that:
Veteran political operative Julie Roginsky said that means candidates will have to reach local movers and shakers — and will have to do it quickly.
“This becomes truly a grassroots campaign,” she said, citing Hudson County as an example.
“You’ve got (Jersey City Mayor-elect) Steve Fulop, you’ve got (State Sen.) Nick Sacco, you’ve got (Union City Mayor) Brian Stack — none of these people give out the county line, but they’re still incredibly important because they’re able to generate votes.”
As for fundraising, Booker will also have to make up for an early advantage held by Pallone. So far Booker has only $1.6 million in the bank compared to Pallone’s $3.7 million.
Pallone’s fundraising advantage is formidable, but one suspects that Booker would be able to overcome that if he’s able to hustle on the fundraising front over the next month or so. Already he’s got a trip to California scheduled early next week where he’ll attend a high-value fundraiser in Hollywood. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife will also be hosting a fundraiser for Booker, only the second such event Zuckerberg has ever hosted (his first was for Chris Christie.) Additionally, in both of his campaigns for Mayor, Booker has managed to pull in significant funds from Wall Street and the financial services industry that has made Newark and the area around it home over the past decade or so. One factor in Booker’s favor is the fact that he’ll be facing more than just Frank Pallone in the primary. As I’ve already noted, Congressman Rush Holt has also jumped into the race and while he’s unlikely to have the fundraising prowess of either Booker or Pallone, he is a formidable presence on his own. If he manages to stay a factor in the race, then the anti-Booker vote, to the extent there is one, would likely be divided just enough for Booker to be able to slip through.
The primary at least is unlikely to be a cakewalk for Booker. Senate seats don’t become available in New Jersey very often, and Pallone has made no secret in recent years that he intended to run for Lautenberg’s seat after he retired. Additionally, while Booker’s national public image makes him seem like an invincible candidate, Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer notes, there’s already an avenue of attack available to his Democratic opponents:
In a state where county party “bosses” have far-reaching political sway, Booker is already behind in fostering relationships with state party leaders, and the New Jersey Democratic establishment. He’s viewed by many as the antithesis to a team player.
In a typical primary election, county power brokers have the power to award a candidate the “party line,” the most favorable position on a primary ballot. In the case of the 2012 election, for example, candidates on the party line would have appeared beneath President Obama and incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez. But in the senate race this fall, the influential party line will hold less sway, as only special election candidates will appear on the August primary ballot.
“The line doesn’t matter as much this time, though even if you’re endorsed on the county line, you have a stamp of approval,” said a state Democratic operative with ties to the race.
One New Jersey Democratic strategist involved in the special election race said that not many state leaders “are hearing directly from [Booker]; they’re hearing from his staff, but not him.”
“His biggest obstacle is that he has not developed the county-level political connections that are really important in New Jersey politics,” said Harrison. “Pallone has strong connections in the county organizations, and if he’s able to use his influence to get endorsed by the county chairs, that carries some measure of weight in a typical primary.”
Pallone has “consistently tried to keep a solid relationship with the powers that be within the state party,” Harrison added.
Booker was likely trying to address that issue today given that the Democratic boss of Essex County, where Newark is located, was present at the announcement and personally acknowledged by Booker. Additionally, the fact that Booker was personally endorsed by Bill Bradley today is likely to help him reach out to party leaders in other parts of the state. Bradley hasn’t been very active in New Jersey politics since retiring from the Senate, but he still retains a good reputation among state Democrats, and that’s likely to help Booker make the inroads that he’s neglected. Additionally, it strikes me that, even in New Jersey, the power of party bosses isn’t what it used to be and that Booker may well profit with voters by being perceived as someone not controlled by those bosses. Nonetheless, it’s an issue that he’s going to have to deal with over the next two months.
Another line of attack involves using Booker’s celebrity against him:
Last summer, a Star-Ledgerreview of 18 months worth of public documents and news reporters found that Booker had spent over 21 percent of his time out of town. The article dubbed him the “absentee mayor.”
It’s a title that could hang over Booker this fall if a rival like Pallone or Holt tries to push the issue to the fore of the campaign.
“The big thing will be hitting him on the ‘absentee mayor’ stuff,” said a Democratic operative involved in the race. “He’s gotten a lot of business into the city by going around the country being a cheerleader for Newark, but there’s a way to make it a negative too.”
“Booker’s biggest thing is that he’s a rock star. People know him because he’s on Bill Maher’s show, and he tweets, but those people aren’t necessarily New Jersey Democratic voters who will come out in a primary in August,” the operative added, noting that 70 percent of Booker’s first-quarter senate contributions came from outside the state, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer review of Federal Election Committee reports.
If Pallone and Holt want to move the polls back in their direction, said Muzzio, they’ll have to go on the offensive, and fast. “Clearly, those attacks will be the test,” he said. “You can go positive, but you’ve got to go negative if you want to take Booker down. You’ve got to say, ‘This is a show-horse. Not a work-horse.'”
Finally, there’s the issue of Booker’s actual performance as Mayor and the fact that the city’s reported “renaissance” hasn’t been as far-reaching as some have believed:
The city, New Jersey’s largest, has shown marked improvement in areas over the last seven years: population has increased for the first time in six decades, and crime has decreased broadly, with a 17 percent decrease in the homicide rate since Booker took office in 2006.
But with a significant spike in violence from 2011 to 2012, Newark still ranks 20th, behind Nashville and Philadelphia, on last year’s Federal Bureau of Investigation list of America’s most dangerous cities. Earlier in his tenure, Booker also laid off more than 600 public workers, and 163 police officers, an unpopular decision which he still remembers as “painful.” (Booker, though, announced earlier this year that he would hire back 50 officers.)
According to a poll published in the Star-Ledger earlier this year, Booker is well liked within his city: Seventy percent of likely Newark voters have a favorable opinion of him, and 65 percent approve of his performance as mayor.
But one a strategist connected to an opposing campaign said one weak spot in Booker’s campaign would be “the fact that his record in Newark is even debatable,” the source said. “You look at Pallone and Holt and you see a proven record in Washington, not to mention a voting record.”
As mayor of a city, Booker has managerial experience that very well may appeal to voters, but Pallone and Holt have both voted on a range of economic, social, and foreign issues on the floor of the House, providing voters a clear sense of where both candidates stand on national policy.
Will all of this be effective in taking Booker down a peg and turning the Democratic Primary into the kind of competitive race that Pallone and Holt need to be if they are going to have any chance at all? It’s not going to be easy. While the race is too fresh right now to be polled, we do have a poll of a Booker-Pallone-Holt race from before Lautenberg died and it showed Booker leading the race with 50%, while Pallone and Holt garnered only 7% and 4% respectively. That’s a tough margin to overcome even for candidates that have a lot of money, and it’s going to be even harder given the fact that this race is going to unfold over the summer months when many voters are going to be unlikely to be paying much attention to the race. The other danger for Booker’s challengers is that they are both going to have to go negative on their perceived front-runner very, and that’s often a strategy that doesn’t work out so well for challengers, especially if Booker responds by running a mostly positive.
Finally, it’s also possible that Booker will not turn out to be a very good campaigner, but that doesn’t seem to be likely given his public persona. There are no guarantees in a race like this, but it certainly looks right now like Booker is not only the man to beat in the Democratic Primary, but that he may well be unbeatable.