NJ Sen. race: rounding up week one

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.

WASHINGTON – If the New Jersey Senate primary was a baseball season, we’d be about 13 games in. Only days have passed since Monday’s filing deadline to run, but when the race is just 9 weeks long, we’re already close to 8 percent through with the contest, as of Friday.

We’re still waiting for the first real big development. So far, there has been a lot of status quo – which is good for the big favorites, Cory Booker on the Democratic side and Steve Lonegan for the GOP.

Here’s a round-up of what we’ve seen so far:

-- Polls give Booker a huge early lead.
Three polls took a look at the Democratic primary – which is expected to be the toughest race, and which will produce the favorite for October’s special election. In this case, the polls show that “toughest race” may be a relative term, since Booker starts with a big lead no matter who does the measuring.

Here were the initial results for the Democratic primary:

-- Monmouth University: Booker – 63, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt – 10, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone – 8, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver – 6.
-- Quinnipiac University:
Booker – 53, Holt – 10, Pallone – 9, Oliver – not included
-- Rutgers-Eagleton: Booker – 55, Pallone – 9, Holt – 8, Oliver – not included

Each poll cautioned that it’s hard to predict who will actually turn out for a primary in the dog days of summer, so turnout operations could be a huge factor, but each survey also said that Booker has a huge lead in name recognition and favorability compared to the other Democratic contenders.

(If you missed it, I broke  down each candidate's strengths and weaknesses earlier in the week).

So that’s where we begin. The question is whether anyone can come up with something that changes the shape of the race in the short time until the primary.

-- Battles lines drawn
The messages are already set, at least on the Democratic side.

Holt and Pallone have each staked their claims as the true liberal heirs to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, while Booker has played up his vision of post-partisan cooperation.

Pallone used an appearance on Brian Lehrer's radio show this week to question Booker's liberal bona fides and ties to Gov. Christie -- opening a line of attack we'll likely see throughout the race. Holt has also cast himself as the real "progressive" in the race.

Booker, according to the Star-Ledger, responded to Lehrer Friday by pointing to his support for same-sex marriage, a difference with Christie, and played up the need for bipartisan cooperation, as he emphasized in his press conference officially announcing his run.

-- Pallone making calls.
Pallone is trying to fix the problem of name-recognition with robo-calls, reported The Record’s Charlie Stile. He starts the race with $3.7 million in cash, more than any other candidate, giving him the most resources to make up ground.

But he, Holt and Oliver have yet to establish much of a campaign operation. Booker, on the other hand, has been laying the groundwork for a run for months, and has secured the services of Message and Media, perhaps New Jersey’s best-known campaign consultants. Pallone was once a client of theirs, but now he’ll have to look elsewhere.

-- An endorsement from Maryland??
One of the more unexpected pieces of news was Booker’s endorsement by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

This is a move that seems to say more about perceptions of Booker’s future than it does about this race.

Because it seems unlikely that any New Jersey voters are looking to a governor a few states away for clues about how to vote in their Senate election. But O’Malley sees himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and Booker has talked up the governor's national hopes.

My take: the fact that he’s going out of his way to get involved in a Senate race a few states removed from his home shows that he thinks Booker has a big future, and could be a high-profile ally a few years from now.

-- Many sitting out
One theory of the race was that Holt and/or Pallone could benefit from their deep ties to the Democratic infrastructure. But the two Congressmen have nearly identical voting records – 97% similarity since 2007 -- and both have such strong links to the state’s public worker unions, that some of the big groups may be too torn to choose.

The NJEA, the powerful teacher’s union, said this week that they probably won’t endorse anyone. The CWA’s state director -- leader of some 70,000 public workers in the state -- told me the group had to table its discussions on the primary because it couldn’t choose. She said the union may revisit the issue, but it’s clear that it’s going to be difficult for them to pick a side.

Similarly, the chair of Democrats' Senate campaign arm indicated to Politico that the organization would sit out the primary, and one of Sen. Bob Menendez's top political aides told PolitickerNJ said the incumbent won’t be getting involved either.

It’s easy to see why. The outcome of the race seems in little doubt as we begin. Even a big endorsement from the teachers or public workers might not be enough to turn the tide. So why back one candidate and anger the other three, when the results might not change?

The calculus might change if Pallone, Holt or Oliver can break out from the pack and become the clear, viable alternative to Booker. But one of them would have to make a move first, and then hope to consolidate some more backing.

-- Lonegan sets up on the right.
Anyone who has followed New Jersey politics knows Lonegan’s game-plan by now: hard right stands, fiery quotes, attention-getting tactics. He was back at it this week, weighing in on one of the pressing issues of the moment, immigration reform, and urging new Republican NJ Sen. Jeff Chiesa to oppose the bill pending on the Senate floor.

Lonegan promoted his opposition on Twitter, using the hashtags #amnesty and #teaparty.

In case you had any doubt: Lonegan’s not pulling punches, even when it seems he has a clear path to becoming the GOP candidate in October (his only opposition is little-known doctor Alieta Eck).

Lonegan's approach will help him with a devoted base that helped him win more than 40 percent of the Republican primary vote against Gov. Christie in 2009, but it’s hard to see how such tactics will translate into a statewide win, with New Jersey’s largely liberal electorate.

Taking this issue as one example, the state has the 8th highest concentration of Hispanics in the country, and many of them will be watching this issue when it comes to the special election.

-- Status quo on election day.
One of the many election variables was a court challenge to the special election set up. But that issue appears settled after a New Jersey Appellate Court rejected a Democratic challenge on Thursday. The Oct. 16 election day seems set, with the primary Aug. 13.

Which means there’s only about 8 weeks left.

UPDATE: (We think. The NJ Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear the challenge to the October election date, so there's one more chance for a twist).