Maybe we've been reading Cory Booker all wrong. The rap on the Newark mayor and U.S. Senate race frontrunner has always been smart politician, indifferent when it comes to actual governance. But now I'm beginning to wonder if Booker is the second coming of Martha Coakley, the Democrat who somehow managed to lose a 2010 Senate election in ultra-liberal Massachusetts. She was the worst candidate for a major office that I'd ever watched -- but Booker's giving her a run for the money.
New Jersey has an independent streak but it tends to lean pretty left for the big offices like U.S. senator or president, and yet recent polls show that Booker is leading Tea Party favorite Steve Lonegan by as little as 12 to maybe just three percentage points. He could even blow this thing. The election is just eight days away -- plenty of time for Booker to choke.
No matter what, it's been a lousy campaign. What the hell happened?
A couple of thoughts. First of all, Booker seems to be flunking Politics 101. A smart Democrat -- especially one with fairly centrist leanings like Booker -- zigs left in the primary and zags back to the right, or at least the middle, in the general election. Booker, bizarrely, has done the opposite. He did little to defend himself on issues like income inequality when he was getting hammered by opponents like Rep. Rush Holt in the primary -- but now that he's facing right-winger Lonegan he's decided to let his proverbial freak flag fly. His first major policy proposal after winning the Democratic primary was to fight child poverty. As a progressive-minded citizen I was glad to hear that, but I was wondering why now, and not sooner.
But the real problem with Booker is that with the crowning triumph of his political career within reach, he disappeared. Even though he's a mayor who's never run in a statewide general election, Booker all but stopped making campaign appearances in New Jersey -- even as he found time to come to Philadelphia for Stu Bykofsky's comedy night. Even Martha Coakley didn't vanish from Massachusetts. He did give a lot of interviews in which a) he declined to answer sometimes pushy questions about his sexuality and b) had to endure news accounts about trading Twitter messages with an Oregon stripper in the wee hours of the morning. Personally, I wouldn't care if the unmarried Booker was dating his pet goat, but in analyzing his recent slippage, I have to assume that some voters are wondering just who the heck is this guy -- just at the time when he wants New Jersey to feel comfortable with the idea of Booker representing them in Washington.
Recently I've been trying to catch up with six long seasons of the show Mad Men, a few sleepy minutes at the end of each night. Maybe it's crazy but I'm starting to see the similarities between Booker and the central ad man Don Draper -- handsome and charismatic, a genius at marketing, with a secret backstory unknown to all around him, even his own wife. Maybe that's unfair to Booker, but he does seem as packaged as the lipstick and dog food that the fictional Sterling Cooper markets to consumers.
And yet Booker probably wins -- New Jersey is just too liberal socially for the regressive Lonegan, and the #GOPshutdown of the government is not a great time to run as a Tea Party candidate, is it? (On the other side, the weird timing of the special election on an October Wednesday may help Lonegan, when only suburban senior citizens actually vote.) If he loses, Booker instantly becomes the 1964 Phillies of American politics. If Booker does win, though, I wonder what happens when New Jersey realizes it just elected the man who wasn't there.