How Booker could be beat

Stripped Whipped
Newark Mayor Cory Booker responds at a news conference, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 in Newark, regarding a video that surfaced showing a naked young man being whipped because of his father's debt. The men identified are 22-year-old Ahmad Holt, 31-year-old Raheem Clark and 23-year-old Jamaar Gray. Police say Holt administered the beating, using a belt provided by Clark. Charges include robbery and aggravated assault. The video shows a 21-year-old man being forced to strip and then whipped with a belt, supposedly because his father owed someone $20. Subsequent to the police investigation, Nicole A. Smith was arrested for drug possession. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

WASHINGTON -- He’s got 1.3 million Twitter followers, a line to Oprah and a frequent guest spot on the big Sunday morning talk shows. Voters know him, and they love him. So how can anyone expect to stop Newark Mayor Cory Booker from winning the U.S. Senate seat he has his eyes on?

Two ways, according to five New Jersey Democratic insiders: by exploiting the rough relationship between Booker and state-level Democrats and testing his appetite for having his sterling reputation battered.

For all of Booker’s pop-political prominence, his national stature appears to have been built at the expense of forging close ties to the New Jersey political leaders who can deliver on-the-ground support crucial to running for for statewide office. Yes, he gets Tweets like this one on Monday -- “I'm just a 19 year old in Arkansas But you have my support” -- but love from Arkansas or Silicon Valley isn’t going to drag primary voters to the polls in Bergen or Hudson County.

Whether it’s because of genuine friction, jealousy, or a feeling that the mayor bypassed the normal political system with his personality-driven rise, there are plenty of people in New Jersey who argue that Booker, 43, has been too much of a lone star and not enough of a team player. (They also acknowledge that there are many reasons to expect that Booker will still be New Jersey’s next senator; more on that below).

One source close to Booker told the Inquirer last week that the mayor’s biggest challenge will be building ties to the state’s local political leaders and overcoming the belief that the mayor doesn’t spend enough time attending events with other New Jersey Democrats or lending his star power to the party’s Garden State efforts. Four other Democratic sources had similar takes. (Democrats, for example, are still snarly over Booker’s refusal to take on Republican Gov. Christie this year).

The raw feelings have been on display in a steady flow of stories critical of Booker’s early approach to a 2014 Senate run. The latest example came in a Monday Star-Ledger story knocking the mayor’s political operation and a Politico story earlier this month about his “rough primetime debut.” Stories like this don’t get written unless someone, or many someones, are unhappy enough to grouse to the press.

The situation has been most acutely seen in the running feud between Booker and Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Lautenberg, and other Democratic fixtures, were incensed when the mayor announced he was eyeing a 2014 senate run before giving the incumbent a chance to announce his decision on whether to run. Booker’s announcement made it look like Lautenberg, 89, was being unceremoniously pushed out. Lautenberg has responded by using every opportunity in front of a microphone to pound Booker on his record at home.

Which leads to point number two: potential opponents wonder how Booker, used to fawning national coverage, will handle the kind of scrutiny that comes with a statewide run. MSNBC might love Booker’s telegenic presence and refined oratory, but they’re not poring through Newark crime statistics or his financial backers.

"The easiest thing you can do in politics is taking a favorability rating of 70 and bring it down to 40,” said one Democrat who is not directly involved with either candidate.

The Democrats who would love to see themselves in the Senate can’t hope to match Booker’s magnetism -- Frank Pallone isn’t getting tweets from random supporters in Arkansas -- but what they can do is call on goodwill they have built up within the party, hoping that a behind-the-scenes push to woo the party’s state and county leaders provides the political support that can somewhat level the playing field.

Pallone, a Jersey shore Congressman and Senate President Steve Sweeney, of Gloucester County, are long-time Democratic hands who have played key roles for the party and paid their dues. Congressman Rush Holt and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver have also thrown their names into the mix.

Pallone, as I wrote Sunday, is seen as the most likely man to stand in Booker’s way. He has more than $3 million in his campaign account, is a prolific fund-raiser, spreads his cash to other Democrats, and is beloved by environmentalists and labor -- two key constituencies in a Democratic primary.

If he, or another contender, can win county-level endorsements from the Jersey Democratic establishment, the thinking goes, they could make up ground. Endorsements from county chairmen provide prime placement on the Democratic primary ballot and the support of the party apparatus’ ground operation.

Maybe that turns the tide against Booker. But there are some big problems with those theories.

Start with two of the most important factors for any politician: name recognition and favorability. Booker blows away the field in both categories. A Monmouth University poll released last week shows that 51 percent of New Jersey voters like Booker. That was even better than Lautenberg (42 percent) who has been in statewide office for nearly 30 years.

Pallone’s favorability: 20 percent, with 73 percent not knowing enough to form an opinion. Sweeney? A slightly better 21 percent like him, and 66 percent don’t know him well enough.

Those are huge deficits to overcome, particularly in New Jersey, where television coverage is dominated by out-of-state outlets in New York and Philadelphia. That makes it hard for New Jersey politicians to get the coverage needed to spread their name, and prohibitively expensive to buy airtime; they have to pay for ads in not just one but two of the country’s biggest TV markets.

Then there’s the question of how far political loyalty really goes when it comes to the state’s kingmakers. If county leaders back Booker, his big name could help their down-ballot candidates in 2014. Go against him, one Democrat pointed out, and county warlords risk seeing their allies wiped out by Booker’s own slate. (Though one source said Booker’s local political operation is so flawed that he questioned if the mayor could field his own candidates).

Money, you’ll be shocked to read, counts too. Jon Corzine was never particularly close with the men who control the state’s Democratic infrastructure, and wasn’t particularly good at politics, but county chairs swooned when he rained five- and six-figure checks around the state.

Booker doesn’t have that kind of personal wealth, but he has connections to the type of people who do. Are county organizations really prepared to turn down that kind of boon in the name of old-school loyalty?

And if Republicans tap a wealthy candidate -- say, John Crowley, or Woody Johnson -- who would Democrats want in their corner? A liberal, mild-mannered Congressman? Or the guy who can get Mark Zuckerberg on the phone?

Yes, party officials have griped, but that’s exactly what the state’s power brokers do when they’re demanding attention.

As one source close to the situation pointed out, it seems easier for Booker to make personal appearances, shake hands and mend fences than for anyone else to match his fundraising ability. The mayor has already pledged to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono, a source close to Booker said.

All of this intrigue, though, is likely to play out in the background for the coming months -- at least that’s what Democrats hope. Already facing steep odds while trying to unseat Christie, the party can’t afford to have all of the political oxygen sucked up by 2014 speculation while the 2013 race is more immediate.

Expect to see Booker, Pallone, Sweeney and anyone else interested in the senate put on their best faces for Buono -- the better to show their party bonafides to primary voters who will pick a nominee in 2014 -- and to quietly work the back rooms to build support.

The overwhelming consensus is that the senate race is Booker's to lose. But Pallone and other challengers will want to test the waters to see if they can rally the support needed to push Booker out, or to take advantage if the mayor stumbles.

Democrats hope to avoid a senate primary. With Christie’s popularity, the last thing the party needs is to bloody its biggest names with in-fighting. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be maneuvering behind the scenes to see if they can find a path to an upset.