Five thoughts on the NJ Senate primary

Five thoughts on the New Jersey Senate primary, with our full story from Tuesday's results here):

1. The upside of celebrity
Cory Booker has taken some hits for his celebrity support and star status. But we saw the upside of his notoriety at the polls Tuesday. On a rainy, mid-summer day when most expected low turnout, Booker was closing in on 209,000 votes, with 98 percent counted, according to AP.

That’s better than the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg did in his 2008 primary (203,000 votes), better than Sen. Bob Menendez did in 2006 (159,600) and far better than Sen. Robert Torricelli did in 2002 (181,500). Menendez got 272,000 in his primary a year ago.

It's much better than many expected -- Democratic turnout, in fact, was fairly high for a non-presidential year.

Considering that Booker had two months to prepare and that Democratic voters had three credible alternatives – who themselves drew 144,700 votes – Booker put up a remarkable number. (U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews took away fewer votes in 08 against Lautenberg, and Booker still topped Lautenberg’s tally that year).

That doesn’t mean substance doesn’t matter, but it is a reminder that style helps, because you’ve got to win first to apply the substance of your message.

It’s a sure bet that Democratic colleagues took note of Booker’s star power. Bloomberg News has already reported that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the Senate’s number three Democrat, have contributed to Booker’s campaign. If he wins, his campaign appearances and fund-raising prowess could help Democrats across the board as they try to hold the Senate in 2014.

2. Get ready for battle, Booker
Speaking strictly about Election Day results, Booker just cleared his toughest Senate challenge by defeating three established Democrats in a four-way primary. But when it comes to day-to-day campaigning, Booker now faces his most aggressive opponent since losing to former Newark Mayor Sharpe James in 2002.

Steve Lonegan has a flair for the dramatic and thrives on conflict. Booker, of course, draws media wherever he goes, but Lonegan is a showman who is not just unafraid to throw bombs, he relishes it.

Booker’s Democratic opponents were slow to hit him. Lonegan won’t be so hesitant. He’s already been in Newark attacking Booker’s record on education and crime, and now that they are actually running against each other, the media will be paying closer attention.

That doesn't necessarily translate into a winning route for Lonegan. His victory would be an even bigger upset than if either Frank Pallone or Rush Holt had won Tuesday.

But Lonegan is more likely to scuff up Booker’s carefully-polished image, and perhaps leave a few lasting marks.

3. Lonegan’s frailty?
Most pundits think Lonegan’s hard-right message is a fatal flaw in a statewide race in New Jersey, but it has been enough in the past to help him win a solid showing with conservative support. That’s how he got 42 percent of the vote against Gov. Christie in the 2009 GOP gubernatorial primary.

But Lonegan’s conservative backers didn’t show up for him Tuesday. He got just 102,685 votes – less than moderate state Sens. Joe Kyrillos and Tom Kean got in U.S. Senate primaries in 2012 and 2006, respectively.

In fact, the Monmouth Polling Institute's Patrick Murray said it was the second-lowest GOP primary turnout since 1925.

Yes, Lonegan faced only token opposition and had to deal with the short run-up, odd primary day and the rain hammering the state. He didn’t really need a huge turnout operation to win and probably needed to preserve his scarce resources. Then again, Kean or Kyrillos had minimal opposition and they still racked up more votes.

Combine the low Lonegan numbers with his poor fund-raising – he had about $151,000 on hand as of late July – and it’s fair to start wondering if his appeal is fading. Voters have already seen him run for governor twice and lose.

His attacks won’t be any less sharp, but with GOP enthusiasm so strongly behind Christie – and the governor keeping Lonegan at arms distance – it looks like Lonegan may have an even tougher job than first expected.

4. What took so long?
That's the main question for Pallone, Holt and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.

The three Democratic contenders made digs at Booker here and there (mostly from the family of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg) but it wasn’t until the final week of the campaign that anyone really let loose on the front-runner. Holt launched a TV ad saying Booker is “no progressive” and Pallone came out firing in the Democrats’ final debate – but that days before the primary. Too late to make a real dent.

Part of the reason may have been the unexpected timing. Booker already had a campaign team together and was raising money well before Lautenberg’s death opened the door to a summer campaign. There was little time for the other candidates to introduce themselves to voters, raise money, form a staff, do research and attack.

Still, Booker’s record was well-known and the statistics on Newark's high unemployment and poverty rates were readily available, and no opponents really challenged his work there. Perhaps they didn’t want to do too much damage to a fellow Democrat. But it also meant they never gained ground on him.

5. Booker and Lonegan enter the general election with bruises
For a relatively quiet primary, the two favorites each suffered some real wounds in the final days of the campaign.

Start with Lonegan: a staffer sent a racially-tinged Tweet last week labeling parts of Newark “West Africa, Guyana, Portugal, Brazil." It was quickly deleted and Lonegan called the resulting controversy a “tempest in a teapot” and blamed “liberals” for playing the race card.

But while Democrats immediately condemned the sentiment, some conservatives were worried, too, about what it means for Lonegan’s chances.

“We certainly hope Steve Lonegan doesn’t end up doing to the New Jersey Republican party what Todd Akin did to the Missouri Republican party--and, ultimately, the national Republican party,” said the Independence Hall Tea Party. The group had backed Lonegan’s opponent, Alieta Eck.

(Akin, of course, used the phrase "legitimate rape" in his Missouri Senate race last year, cratering his campaign and costing Republicans any chance at a seat many expected them to win).

The Tea Party group's statement gets to the heart of the issue: the Tweet will be used to further the most potent attack on Lonegan, that he is “too extreme” for New Jersey. It’s been used against him before, and with his uncompromising opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and Democratic PACs are already lining up the same criticism.

Flubs like this fade when they seem to be one-off incidents, but when they fit into an existing narrative pushed by an opponent, these moments can stick in voters’ memories and be severely damaging.

Booker, meanwhile, took hits over his start-up company, Waywire – which got big help from friendly tech moguls -- and Democrats pounced on him for hedging on some key liberal issues. They also highlighted his long-standing ties to Wall Street, and a late New York Post story revealed that he had been receiving settlement payments from his old law firm even as the firm got work in Newark.

(I asked Booker about the size of his ownership stake in Waywire this morning as he posed for pictures with commuters in Hoboken. "I'm not going to tell you that today," he said, adding that he will address it later in the campaign).

The Lonegan campaign’s tweet, with its racially-charged tone, may be more immediately damaging. The Waywire story is harder to condense into a 30-second ad – though you can bet Lonegan will make the most of it.

But for Booker’s long-term prospects – if he is planning to run for national office one day – the attacks from Pallone and Holt highlighted vulnerability on the left that future opponents will certainly take note of.

You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at