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NJ Senate Race May Prove Exceptionally Polarizing

by Dennis "DJ" Mikolay, published

For those unaware, New Jersey is in the midst of a less-than-hotly contested gubernatorial campaign, a race that has pitted popular incumbent Governor Chris Christie against State Senator Barbara Buono, a little-known, ill-funded Democratic challenger. The almost guaranteed Republican victory is big news; however,  for the past few weeks, the Garden State’s headlines have been dominated by electoral developments related to the U.S. Senate rather than the Executive Branch.

Indeed, the passing of Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who was nothing short of a political icon, opened a floodgate of speculation and ideological passion from within both major parties. First, there were theories that Governor Christie would appoint a Republican in his place and break forty years of Democratic representation. Others dismissed this idea and advocated a special election which would allow the people to select a successor. In the end, both realities came to fruition; former Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa will serve four months in the Senate, to be replaced by the winner of an October Special Election.

It’s a plan that clearly benefits Governor Christie’s re-election prospects, and prompts New Jersey’s politicians, some of whom have been eyeing Lautenberg’s seat for years, to reflect upon their own political ambitions.

Indeed, the crowded field of Senatorial aspirants is full of familiar faces. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, one of the state’s political superstars, has positioned himself as frontrunner, though State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and United States Representatives Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, both popular among liberals in their own districts, have also announced their candidacies. The optimism that propelled these Democrats to enter the race is fueled by the realization that the seat is winnable, a sentiment that doesn’t seem to have transferred to the Republicans.

The GOP has only fielded two candidates, physician Alieta Eck and Mayor Steve Lonegan, both of whom are social conservatives and critics of Obamacare. Lonegan, the likely nominee, doesn’t have the fame Corey Booker (who saves dogs, shovels snow, and rescues people from burning buildings) has enjoyed on a national level. Lonegan can, however, boast a history of strong, ideological persistence. His frequent radio ads on behalf of Americans for Prosperity and multiple unsuccessful runs for higher offer have made the pro-life Tea Partier an easily recognizable figure, a hero to some, a pariah to others, and a polarizing candidate if ever there was one.

And therein lies the problem: in a state like New Jersey, where the GOP enjoys its greatest success when it moderates social policy, Lonegan’s dogmatic views are simply too extreme for mass consumption. After-all, he is probably best remembered for his public crusades against illegal immigrants, which included attempts to make English  the official language of his hometown (he also tried to force a local McDonalds to remove a Spanish-language billboard). This probably won’t win over Latino voters, but it will provide fodder for Democratic attack ads, which can highlight Lonegan’s history of controversy as proof he isn’t fit for a seat in the Senate. That he is vocally anti-Obama on the campaign trail while seeking a Senate seat representing a state where fifty-eight percent of voters supported the incumbent president seems to betray a lack of ability to relate to the average citizen. Indeed, as is often the case, it seems as though the social conservatives, who are a minority in the Garden State, suffer under the illusion that more New Jersey voters support their agenda than is actually the case.

Of course, there are those who hope that Governor Christie’s popularity will benefit the Republicans during the Senate race. It is erroneous thinking. Christie’s conservatism is acceptable in a Democratic stronghold like New Jersey because he serves in a state office, so divisive and impassioned social issues never enter the fray. Mayor Lonegan, on the other-hand, is seeking federal office on a platform that is pro-guns, opposed to abortion, and vocally anti-President Obama. He isn’t interested in bipartisanship and will have a hard time winning over anyone who counts themselves as anything other than rigidly conservative.

Mayor Lonegan has stated he believes (aside from an expected endorsement) Governor Christie will campaign alongside him. This scenario, though not impossible, is certainly unlikely. To be frank, the Lonegan campaign is a serious liability to the GOP, which is currently riding high in terms of popularity in New Jersey. Christie is almost guaranteed to win re-election this fall; that he has been dismissed as a “moderate” or a “RINO” by the Tea Party bodes in his favor, but that status, and the accompanying credibility with non-Republicans, would most certainly be lost if he lent support to an ultra-conservative like Mayor Lonegan.

By staying away from the Senate race, Governor Christie can appear as a unifier, above petty partisan politics. Because Steve Lonegan ran against him in the 2009 Republican primaries, the incumbent could easily distance himself from the aspiring Senator’s dogmatic worldview. After-all, the two were enemies a mere four years ago. Since their electoral showdown, Mayor Lonegan attacked the Christie Administration on several occasions, running frequent radio spots that severely admonished proposed economic policies. The message was clear: Chris Christie wasn’t conservative enough for Steve Lonegan and his ilk, a rallying cry that will actually benefit the Governor.

Thus, Mayor Steve Lonegan continues into the Senate race with few allies and many obstacles, assuring that the media and political observers will have a lot to focus on in the coming weeks.





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