TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey’s abbreviated U.S. Senate race went to the voters Wednesday with candidates characterizing the contest as a referendum on the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington in recent weeks.
Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan each cast a ballot early in the morning in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.
The election is the first since the partial federal government shutdown began more than two weeks ago. It came the same day Senate leaders announced a deal had been struck to reopen the government and avert a Treasury default.
“This is the only election in America right now where we will get a chance to make a statement about what is going on in Washington,” Booker said after voting in downtown Newark. “This is a chance for us to send a message about the shutdown, about the gridlock, about all those forces that my opponent represents – the tea party – that says we shouldn’t compromise, we shouldn’t work together.”
Booker, the high-profile mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, had circulated a petition to end the shutdown and accused Congress of failing voters by not finding a way to work together.
Lonegan supported the shutdown, arguing the Affordable Care Act should be delayed a year and objecting to the concept of government-directed health insurance.
After voting in Bogota, the city he led as mayor for three terms, Lonegan said he has been able to unite Republicans of all stripes.
“We’ve unified and I’m proud of that,” he said. “The entire Republican party, from the tea party to the moderate wing to pro-life and not so pro-life. Everybody who cares about individual liberty.”
In the shore town of Point Pleasant, nurse Mary Martin said she voted for Lonegan, a decision that wasn’t influenced by the government shutdown.
“I’m a longtime Republican and I just think with the way we’re headed, we need more conservative people in there,” she said.
The two-month campaign played out under a compressed schedule and was the subject of controversy even before the two candidates were chosen.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed a GOP caretaker and ordered the election held Oct. 16, the soonest date the law allowed following an unprecedented August primary.
Critics accused the governor of keeping the race off the Nov. 5 ballot, when he is up for re-election, to make it easier for him to win big as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state and aid his potential national ambitions. During his first debate, he refused to rule out a run for president in 2016.
Public opinion polls showed Booker, 44, the second-term mayor of Newark, with a double-digit-percentage advantage heading into the election, where he hoped to secure a seat as the second African-American in the Senate along with Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Booker on Wednesday called the opportunity to serve as senator “one of the greatest privileges any Jersey boy could have.”
Marcy Phillips, a 30-year resident of Newark, covered her car in Booker signs and was driving around the city Wednesday urging people to vote.
“He’s the best out of the candidates right now, and he’s the one we need,” she said. “As the mayor of Newark, he did his best and right now the whole city has changed.”
Lonegan, 57, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group advocating limited government that was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, ran an aggressive, in-your-face campaign.
“We want a leader, not a tweeter,” he said at one point, referring to Booker’s prolific use of Twitter, where he has 1.4 million followers.
Both candidates drew on some big names for support – Oprah Winfrey helped raise funds for Booker, while the nation’s largest tea party political action committee brought former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in to campaign for the GOP nominee.
The campaign took odd twists and turns for both candidates.
Booker was forced off-message to explain G-rated correspondence with a stripper he met while filming a social media documentary. Lonegan was forced to dump a longtime strategist after a lengthy, profanity-laced interview with a political website in which he claimed Booker’s banter with the stripper “was like what a gay guy would say.”
While in Newark, Booker has worked with Christie on common education goals, such as ending lifetime teacher tenure and increasing the number of charter schools. Newark schools remain under state control.
Lonegan repeatedly knocked Booker for the city’s high crime rate and unemployment. At one point in the campaign, Booker announced a new crime-fighting strategy to cope with a string of 10 homicides in 10 days.
Lonegan said that as a mayor, he also has reached across the aisle in working with a Democratic borough council.
But Booker painted him as a tea party extremist, one who would – if sent to Washington – make the capital’s gridlock worse.