Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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Breaking down the NJ Senate field

The field is finally set. Four Democrats, two Republicans, two months to primary day, four months to the general election and the selection of a new New Jersey Senator.

Breaking down the NJ Senate field

The candidates: (top, from left) U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, former mayor Steve Lonegan, (bottom, from left) Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, physician Alieta Eck.
The candidates: (top, from left) U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, former mayor Steve Lonegan, (bottom, from left) Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, physician Alieta Eck.

The field is finally set. Four Democrats, two Republicans, two months to primary day, four months to the general election and the selection of a new New Jersey Senator.

Now that the petitions are in, here’s a look at the candidates running for Senate:

Democrats
Cory Booker

Strengths: You’ve heard of him. You’ve seen him on TV and on Twitter and maybe in a documentary. And so probably have your friends, just like many, many New Jersey voters. Booker isn’t just one of New Jersey’s two most well-known politicians, he is a national name who dwarfs his opponents in name recognition and favorability, and he’ll have plenty of money to run, even with the short run up.

Some have knocked his ties to party leaders, but two of New Jersey’s biggest power brokers are already with him: South Jersey’s George Norcross, who is managing partner of the company that owns the Inquirer, and Essex County’s Joe DiVincenzo.

Weaknesses: The most common criticism is that Booker is too much of a lone star, too busy building up his name out of state and not tending to Newark and helping Democrats at home. Party insiders still gripe that he didn’t run against Gov. Christie. Early on, some critics have also questioned how well his campaign was managed – especially given the waves he made by declaring his interest before the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg had a chance to announce his intentions.

He is also presenting himself as a bipartisan problem solver – a nice general election message, but in a primary that could be dominated by hard-core Democrats, that moderation and Booker’s ties to Christie could hurt him.

Bottom Line: Booker begins the race as the heavy favorite. Anyone who hopes to catch him in those in just two months has a lot of work to do.

Rush Holt
Strengths:
He’s been in the House for eight terms and is respected for his intelligence (he’s a former Princeton nuclear physicist). Liberals and grassroots groups love him. His district includes Trenton and the surrounding areas, and he’s beloved by the unions representing state workers there, potentially giving the help of a massive Democratic voting bloc.

Weaknesses: Holt is also hardly known outside of his district, and he starts the race with only about $800,000 cash on hand – about half of what Booker had after just three months of fund-raising. He and Pallone might  split the liberal and “anybody-but-Booker” vote.

Bottom Line: Holt fares about as well as Pallone in early polls from Quinnipiac and Rutgers-Eagleton, but he’s got a lot less money. He and Pallone will have a hard time distinguishing themselves from one another. He’ll need a huge push from Democratic groups such as labor and environmentalists.

Sheila Oliver
Strengths: She is the Assembly Speaker, so she has more of a profile than your average state lawmaker and she’s the only woman in the Democratic field. She stressed that distinction Monday, arguing for the importance of adding a woman to the New Jersey delegation, which is made up entirely of men. Oliver is from Essex County, home of Democrats’ richest troves of voters, but then again, so does Booker, and the county’s top official is with the mayor.

Weaknesses: Oliver was plucked out of obscurity when she became speaker in 2010, helped by the latest round of New Jersey’s North-South horse trading. Despite a top legislative perch, she does not have a huge profile in the state.

Bottom Line: Oliver stunned political observers by becoming speaker, so we should know not to underestimate her, but she also had a lot of help from the establishment when she did that. It doesn’t appear that will be the case in this race.

Frank Pallone
Strengths: He’s been stockpiling campaign money for this run for years, and starts with $3.7 million, the most in the field. He’s also been a loyal Democrat, campaigning with the party’s chosen candidates, spreading campaign cash around and building ties with powerful insiders. Liberal groups like labor and environmentalists have long supported him, and could play a big role in the primary.

Weaknesses: The average voter outside of his district hasn’t heard of him. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 68 percent of voters don’t know Pallone well enough to form an opinion of him. It’ll be hard to turn those voters into supporters in such a short time period.

As noted above, he and Holt will have a hard time distinguishing themselves from one another. They are both longtime Congressmen, their districts abut in Central Jersey, and they have voted together 97 percent of the time since 2007, according to OpenCongress.org. And while Pallone is hoping for labor support, Holt’s strong ties with state workers could siphon off voters who might otherwise be key pieces of a Pallone coalition.

Bottom Line: Pallone passed up one opportunity to move to the Senate in 2002, and has long waited his turn for another shot to move up. But he may have been overtaken by Booker, who has done things his own way and had success. Pallone will have to hope Democratic interest groups turn out in force on primary day, that liberals shy away from Booker’s post-partisan message, and that they choose him instead of Holt.

Republicans
Steve Lonegan
Strengths: The only well-known Republican in the field and long the face of New Jersey’s conservative movement, Lonegan has a fervent following that helped him win more than 40 percent of the vote against Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary. His fiery approach endears him to conservative activists and he can motivate his backers – as evidenced by his 7,210 signatures on his petition to run, even more than Booker’s 7,162.

Weaknesses: His conservative message is great with his base, but so far he has not been able to sway enough of New Jersey’s mostly-liberal voters to actually win an election. He lost in the 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial primaries. New Jersey voters have regularly rejected even moderate Republicans running for Senate, so what will they make of the bomb-throwing Lonegan?

Bottom Line: With every other known Republican sitting out, Lonegan appears almost certain to finally get the chance to show his stuff against a Democrat in a statewide, general election. He believes that a true conservative – rather than a moderate – can win. But in New Jersey, where the state has leaned heavily Democratic on senate and presidential elections, few analysts agree with him. The state hasn't voted a Republican into the Senate in more than 40 years.

Alieta Eck
Strengths: If Republicans are worried about having Lonegan as their standard bearer, Eck is the only alternative. She’s a doctor from Somerset County, in Central Jersey and early on has focused on what she sees as the dangers of ObamaCare.

Weaknesses: She is almost entirely unknown. If she has been involved in electoral politics before now,  no one has unearthed that history.

Jonathan Tamari
About this blog

Jonathan Tamari is the Inquirer’s Washington correspondent. He writes about the lawmakers, politics and policy that affect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Tamari previously covered the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL. Before that he worked in Trenton, reporting on the characters and color of New Jersey state government. He lives in Washington.

Reach Jonathan at jtamari@phillynews.com.

Jonathan Tamari
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