The GOP Has Already Given Up On The New Jersey Senate Race

There is only one serious candidate in the race for Frank Lautenberg's old Senate seat, and he's got pretty much no chance of winning the election.

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The deadline for candidates to enter the Republican (and Democratic) primary for the Special Election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat expires at 4pm today, the deadline for all candidates to have their nominating petitions, 1,000 valid signatures of registered voters at the Secretary of State’s office in Trenton. So far, it looks like there will only be one serious Republican candidate in the race:

While Democrats have a crowded primary for New Jersey’s open seat in the U.S. Senate, the Republicans already have a presumptive nominee — and he’s kind of a clown.

Meet Steve Lonegan, chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the tea party group Americans for Prosperity. Lonegan was a three-term mayor of Bogota, a town of 8,000 people in Bergen County. And he’s a longtime party gadfly, having twice unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Goveror and also lost races for Congress and state Senate.

Lonegan is 30 points behind Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the most likely Democratic nominee, in the first poll of the race. And Lonegan’s tendency to alienate voters make him unlikely to improve that margin much.

Lonegan’s website has a banner that says “conservative Republican victory” and touts his intention to “fight Obama’s agenda in the U.S. Senate.” That sort of message works in Texas, but President Obama has a 12-point net-positive job approval rating in New Jersey. It’s the sort of place where hugging the president is often a sound political move even (or especially) if you are a Republican.

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Lonegan is going to be an embarrassing candidate for the Republican party. So how is he becoming the nominee? Because while an unfiltered, archconservative Republican like Lonegan can’t win a Senate race, neither can the moderates that the party usually nominates.

The last Republican to win a Senate race in New Jersey was Clifford Case, a moderate, in 1972. New Jersey is a blue state and it wants Democrats in the senate.

Lonegan, of course, is not a moderate. He didn’t govern like one when he was Mayor of Bogota. He didn’t campaign like one when he ran against Chris Christie for the GOP nomination for Governor in 2009, a race he lost by 12 points, and he hasn’t put forward that kind of image in the time since then as one of the loudest voices in New Jersey’s version of the Tea Party. He is, however, going to be the Republican nominee largely because other candidates, including moderates like Tom Kean Jr. who would clearly do a better job of appealing to voters in a General Election, decided not to run this time around. Kean Jr. had run for Senate before, losing to Bob Menendez in 2006, and likely shied away from the race because he didn’t want to enter a race that no Republican is likely to win.

Lonegan’s supporters, of course, will likely say good riddance to Kean and the other Republicans who bowed out of the race. After all, this gives them the chance to nominate the “true conservative they’ve always wanted in a statewide race. The only problem is, nominating “true conservatives has not historically been the path to victory in the Garden State, and that’s a history that stretches back nearly 40 years:

[T]he claim that what New Jerseyans want is a “true conservative” is nonsense. The last time conservatives got their way on a statewide nomination in New Jersey was 2001, when Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler beat the establishment Republican candidate for the gubernatorial nomination. Schundler got creamed, losing the general election by 15 points.

And in 1978, conservatives deprived the Republican party of its last New Jersey Senate seat by denying renomination to then-Senator Case. The conservative who beat him in the primary, Jeffrey Bell, lost the general election to Bill Bradley by 12 points, even though 1978 was a good year for Republican senate candidates nationally. The only Republican who ever came close to beating Bradley was Christie Whitman, a moderate.

To the extent New Jersey voters ever like Republican candidates, they like them like Chris Christie: protective of taxpayer interests and resistant to the upward rise of New Jersey’s sky-high taxes, but pragmatic and willing to make compromises with Democrats. That’s not Steve Lonegan. But at least his crushing defeat will provide a useful reminder that lurching farther away from the median voter is not the way to improve your party’s brand.

I doubt Republicans will learn that lesson, though. Instead, they’ll blame the loss on Chris Christie not setting the Special Election for 2014, an argument that ignores the fact that Jersey Democrats had already threatened to file a lawsuit if that happened, a lawsuit that Christie very well could have lost. But that’s the standard Republican way these days, blame everyone but yourself for your failures.

And, yes, I fully expect to have this post quoted back to me if, somehow, Lonegan manages to win. Given the current circumstances, though, I’d put the odds of that happening at something less than 10%.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2013, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    The kind of people who think Lonegan can win in New Jersey by being an arch-conservative are the kind of people who thought Scott Brown lost to Elizabeth Warren because he was too liberal. In other words, they’re delusional.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But at least his crushing defeat will provide a useful reminder that lurching farther away from the median voter is not the way to improve your party’s brand.

    No it won’t. It will only prove what the hardcore right has been saying since 2008: Voter fraud is rampant and the greatest threat to American Democracy ™ since 1965.

  3. stonetools says:

    At this point it looks baked in the cake that in NJ, Booker will win Senate and Christie will win Governor. Let’s hear more from races that will actually be competitive.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    Awesome. This means that Jersey get’s to enjoy the same sort of freak show that we New Yorkers got during the 2010 governor’s race. I hope Carl Paladino has some tips for Lonegan.

  5. Pinky says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    But at least his crushing defeat will provide a useful reminder that lurching farther away from the median voter is not the way to improve your party’s brand.

    Except the lesson isn’t true. The whole premise of this article is that Republicans can’t win in NJ, be they conservative or moderate. It’d be insane to learn the lesson that Republicans shouldn’t go conservative from this race, because going conservative won’t be their problem.

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @Pinky:

    It’d be insane to learn the lesson that Republicans shouldn’t go conservative from this race, because going conservative won’t be their problem.

    In your mind, what’s the real problem? Because, to many of it us, it seems like the candidates who tend to represent “the realz consevatiz” side of the party typically share some similar baggage in terms of statewide races.

  7. @Pinky:

    Since 1981, Republicans have won 5 out of the last 7 Governor’s elections (Kean twice, Whitman twice, and Christie once) , and Christie’s re-election in November will make it 6 out of the last 8. So, no, nobody is saying that Republicans can’t win statewide in new Jersey. What seems irrefutable is that hard right conservative Republicans probably cannot win in New Jersey.

  8. edmondo says:

    There’s no reason for a Republican to run, Cory Booker weill vote like one.

  9. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Think what Pinky means is that REAL Republicans can’t win. Comsymp RINOS aren’t real Republicans.

  10. Pinky says:

    @Doug Mataconis: According to the Business Insider article that (I thought) you were favorably quoting,

    Because while an unfiltered, archconservative Republican like Lonegan can’t win a Senate race, neither can the moderates that the party usually nominates.

    The last Republican to win a Senate race in New Jersey was Clifford Case, a moderate, in 1972. New Jersey is a blue state and it wants Democrats in the senate.

    So I should have said “Senate candidates”. But that begs the question: if your position is that conservative and non-conservative Republicans don’t stand a chance, how can you argue that it’s due to them being conservative?

  11. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    Your attitude is kind of why Democrats can’t have nice things. So far as I know, Corey Booker is a moderate to liberal Democrat and will vote that way. But hey, firebag on. I guess a real Republican Senator would be so much better.

  12. edmondo says:

    @stonetools:

    and it’s o=pologists like you who turned the Democratic Party into GOP-Lite. You should know about “real Republicans” you voted for that guy in the White House.

  13. Matt Bernius says:

    @Pinky:

    So I should have said “Senate candidates”. But that begs the question: if your position is that conservative and non-conservative Republicans don’t stand a chance, how can you argue that it’s due to them being conservative?

    One has to wonder to what degree the lack of Republican success in Senate races has to do with *incumbency* versus party affiliation.

    Case’s seat was taken over by Bill Bradley who served for 3 terms, then Robert Torricelli for a single term, and then Lautenberg who just won his second term.

    For most of that same time period you had Frank Lautenberg who served for 3 terms, then Corzine, who left his first term early and ran for Governor, and then the current office holder, Bob Menendez.

    Lautenberg had a LOT of name recognition when he ran again for the Senate — so he was a defacto incumbent. And Corzine left office early enough to essentially make Menendez the incumbent when he ran in his first Senate Race.

    Given the general low rate of turn-over among incumbent senators, the results are not particularly surprising. Essentially there have probably been only two truly competitive — meaning not involving an incumbent — Senate races in NJ during that entire period.

    Arguably, the decision to put up a sacrificial lamb in this election might be a sign that the Republicans want to put all their efforts into putting up a good challenger to run if Menendez decides to retire. If so, that’s learning from the mistakes the NY Republicans made with Rick Lazio.

  14. CSK says:

    In other news, the Patriots have hired Tim Tebow.

  15. Caj says:

    Not surprising. There’s another race they might as well give up on as well. The run for presidency in 2016. Not one of those jokers can past muster. Same old tired policies. Same running down of women. No intention of ever being fully inclusive of all. No, that party is stuck on stupid and it won’t be fixed by 2016. In fact I don’t think it will ever be fixed at all!

  16. edmondo says:

    @Caj:

    Totally disagree. The GOP will win an election for president sooner or later. That’s precisely why they need to fix the stupid because we will all pay the price if they don’t.

  17. Caj says:

    @edmondo:

    Republicans will win sooner or later! Yes, but what century will that be in? That party is so far down the rabbit hole someone may fill it in for good.

  18. edmondo says:

    @Caj:

    Dude, Obama got 51% of the vote against one of the worst major party candidates since George McGovern. The Democrats are hardly invincible (except in stonetools mind).

  19. Pinky says:

    @Caj:

    That party is so far down the rabbit hole someone may fill it in for good.

    I remember hearing that about the Democrats 8 years ago, and about the Republicans 8 years before that.

  20. @Pinky:

    Well, the Senate category becomes a complicated one because, in every case since Lautenberg’s first run for re-election in 1988, those Republicans have been running against an incumbent. There have been two occasions, Pete Dawkins in 1988 and Chuck Haitayan in 1994, when the GOP challenger to Lautenberg came very close to winning but fell short. The other Senator during this period was Bill Bradley, whose personal popularity made almost any challenge to his re-election a quixotic endeavor from the beginning.

    Since then, the NJ GOP has put up few notable Senate candidates in opposition to Democratic incumbents. The most notable, perhaps, was State Senator Tom Kean Jr., who fell 8 points short of beating Bob Menendez in the Democratic wave election of 2006.

  21. Andre Kenji says:

    1-) I doubt that any reputable NJ Republican would like to be a Sacrificial Lamb against Pallone, Booker or any Dem Candidate.

    2-) The point is not the Senate, but the State Legislature. What NJ Republicans want is to use Christie popularity to increase their turnout and voting for their candidates in State Legislative elections – maybe, they could even take the control of one of the chambers.

    That´s why Christie scheduled this election for October, not November. Paul Mulshine, a pretty conservative writer for the Ledger, explains:

    http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2013/06/it_was_the_democrats_not_chris.html

  22. superdestroyer says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    The idea that the Republicans can win a majority in the New Jersey State Senate or Assembly is laughable. That Booker is going to easily win shows a picture of the future of politics in the U.S. where the clout selected candidate wins and there is no real contest.

    What is amazing is does Booker plan on being a Senator for 20-30 years like so many other current Senate members since there is no real risk of ever being voted out of office.

  23. Matt Bernius says:

    @superdestroyer:

    That Booker is going to easily win shows a picture of the future of politics in the U.S. where the clout selected candidate wins and there is no real contest.

    And this is different from past US politics how? I mean seriously, can you cite all that many real “upsets” when it comes to statewide elections. For every Jessie Ventura, there are countless times where the clout wielder won.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    In the 1980’s I believe Senators were more likely to lose than they do now and that was with a relevant Republican Party. Image what is doing to happen in the one party state of the future where the Democratic Party primary is the real election and the clouts who control the Democratic Party get to decide who the official candidate is for their party.

    If the Democrats get what they want with public funding and the government controlling private expenditures, there will be no point in pay attention to elections. Of course, this goes along with the Progressive push to establish a small patron class in the U.S. and a large peon class.