Newark Mayor Cory Booker self-identifies as an “independent Democrat.” When he declared his official entry into New Jersey’s special election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s vacant Senate seat on Saturday, he explained that if elected, he would seek to “bring people together…actually get into the complicated difficult messy arena and take on the difficult challenges, work in uncommon ways with conviction and courage.”
While this language is aimed at the entire state’s electorate and not just the Democratic voters who will participate in the state’s closed primary, the question remains: can Booker appeal to independents?
The abbreviated timeline until the election means there is less of an opportunity for voters to delve into Booker’s policy platform. Currently, his campaign website has little more than a video of his candidacy announcement and a link to donate to the campaign.
Booker’s record, though, indicates he is part of the liberal wing of his party and shares many of the same opinions as the men he is running against. Booker, along with Representatives Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, have all vowed to be tough on guns, loosen immigration laws, and support gay marriage.
In spite of these similarities, early polls show that Booker is the heavily favored front-runner in the Democratic primary set for August 13. A Quinnipiac University poll reports Booker leading with 53 percent of voters, while Holt and Pallone are far behind with only 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
Part of Booker’s appeal stems from his national prominence, not necessarily his independent approach to policy formation. Many attribute his lead in the polls to the way the press has embraced him as the future of the Democratic Party, but he also had a leg up on the other men that are currently in the race.
Booker has been in the national spotlight for years and had already declared his intention to run and replace Lautenberg in the original 2014 election before the 89-year-old senator passed away last week from complications with viral pneumonia. Holt and Pallone are shown to have strong support within their districts, but lack statewide appeal.
In addition, Booker is boosted by his prominence on Twitter and perceived heroism from various incidents such as saving a neighbor from a burning building, chasing down a suspected bank robber, and personally shoveling out residents who had appealed for help on Twitter during a snowstorm.
In spite of this attention, Booker largely remains a mystery to voters who have criticized him for spending too much time focused on the national stage rather than solving the problems in Newark, which “remains an emblem of poverty.”
Even Frank Lautenberg, whose seat Booker is looking to take over, had critical words for Booker as recently as January for his exuberance in exploring a Senate run before the senator even indicated that he would not be seeking another term.
Because of Booker's lead in the polls, independents must stop looking at the former Rhodes Scholar as merely a shoo-in for the election or as the new charismatic Obama and start asking tough questions about his policy platforms and how he would accomplish real change if he makes it to Washington in October.