Almost overnight, the race for New Jersey’s Senate seat has become the highest profile and, arguably, most important race in the country in 2013. With Senator Frank Lautenberg passing away on Monday and Governor Chris Christie calling for a special primary election in August, what was going to be a 12 month, slow-developing, contest is now a 67-day, all-out sprint.
The bottom line is that Newark Mayor Cory Booker is well-positioned to become New Jersey’s next Senator, but his path is trickier and more complicated than it was just last week. Let’s take a look at the landscape.
The Playing Field
The primary election will take place on August 13th, followed by a special election on October 16th (Christie was afraid that if Booker was on the November ballot, increased rainbow turnout would make the Governor’s race more competitive, so he chose to waste $50 million of taxpayer dollars on a special election just three weeks before the regularly-scheduled November election).
Participation in the primary election is restricted to registered voters in each party who have been registered for 55 days, meaning that there is almost no time to do new voter registration.
All of the real action will be in the Democratic primary. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, and that is unlikely to change this year. Yesterday, Christie appointed state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa as a “caretaker” for the seat (Chiesa has promised not to run in the special election). The only announced Republican candidate is a little-known right-wing former small-town mayor named Steve Lonegan.
The Democratic field will be much more robust. Cory Booker had been laying the groundwork for a 2014 race for months and is expected to announce his candidacy tomorrow. Congressman Frank Pallone is almost certain to run and has $3.7 million cash on hand. Congressman Rush Holt jumped into the race yesterday, and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is exploring a run.
The field will be set by Monday at 4:00 p.m. when candidates have to submit 1,000 signatures in order to get on the ballot.
Cory Booker is clearly the favorite to win this seat, although Pallone’s sizable bank account makes him a formidable opponent. In the poll conducted by PAC+ President Dr. Julie Martinez Ortega a few months ago, Booker received 48% of the vote compared to the next highest person who was at 10%. Pallone received just 8%. Booker’s favorability rating is 72% (higher than all other politicians except for President Obama). Pallone’s favorability is just 15%, with 70% having no opinion. So Cory clearly starts out with very strong structural advantages in a tightly-compressed election where there is little time for the other candidates to raise their name recognition and favorability ratings.
There are still hurdles, however, that Cory must overcome in order to make it to the U.S. Senate. First, Pallone has $3.7 million in the bank, and he can use that money to blanket the state with ads designed to raise his profile (and, possibly, to attack Cory). While Cory had raised $1.9 million in the first quarter of this year and is on an aggressive fundraising push, he won’t have the resources to overwhelm Pallone financially. The second obstacle is voter turnout. A mid-August election is almost guaranteed to be low-turnout, and the primary being restricted to Democratic voters takes away Cory’s strength among Independent voters. Last, Cory is not a favorite of the New Jersey Democratic Party bosses who see him as too uppity, and they may try to depress turnout among Cory’s voters.
The PAC+ Plan: Help Cory Win
Recognizing the importance of voter turnout among young people and people of color, PAC+ will be the main independent organization in the country working to help elect Cory to the Senate. The “Help Cory” Win” program will partner with key New Jersey organizations and utilize cutting edge tools and tactics deployed across multiple platforms and media outlets to increase excitement about the election and boost civic participation.
The PAC+ Plan will be unveiled next week, kicking off a 60-day push to get voters aware of the upcoming election and out to the polls.
A New Day Dawns in August
If Cory is able to raise the money to combat negative attacks on him, avoid mistakes that would damage his image, and get his voters to the polls, he is likely to be the next Senator from New Jersey and an heir apparent to the multi-racial, ascendant coalition that elected and re-elected Barack Obama.
Clockwise, from the top, Congressman Pallone, Congressman Holt, Newark Mayor Cory Booker