Commentary Magazine


Topic: Frank Pallone

Cory Booker and the “Celebrity” Charge

The evergreen electoral strategy in which an underdog candidate tries to turn his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness is high risk and high reward. The reward is obvious enough, if successful. But the risk is that the effort will simply remind the public why they liked the candidate in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s opponents in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey are ready to take that chance.

A super-PAC called the American Commitment Action Fund has released a tough ad echoing criticism Booker has heard before: his commitment to a national profile has come at the expense of the city he is supposed to be governing. But recent polling suggests the ad might end up reinforcing Booker’s appeal among Democratic primary voters. The ad itself, running nearly two minutes, casts Booker as an absentee mayor who consolidates power in his hands while weakening the city government around him:

 

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The evergreen electoral strategy in which an underdog candidate tries to turn his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness is high risk and high reward. The reward is obvious enough, if successful. But the risk is that the effort will simply remind the public why they liked the candidate in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s opponents in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey are ready to take that chance.

A super-PAC called the American Commitment Action Fund has released a tough ad echoing criticism Booker has heard before: his commitment to a national profile has come at the expense of the city he is supposed to be governing. But recent polling suggests the ad might end up reinforcing Booker’s appeal among Democratic primary voters. The ad itself, running nearly two minutes, casts Booker as an absentee mayor who consolidates power in his hands while weakening the city government around him:

 

           

As I wrote last year, one estimate found Booker spending one out of every five days out of state, and the line in the ad that to see Booker you’d have to turn on Meet the Press will surely resonate with some voters. And it’s understandable that his opponents would seek to turn Booker’s major advantage in a brief primary season–his national profile–into a weakness. But the latest Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters has some bad news for his rivals, Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

To say Booker is polling well would be an understatement. He gets 49 percent of the vote overall, and his nearest competitor is Pallone with 12 percent. And he may just be turning the tables on his opponents, neutralizing their natural advantages while retaining his own:

Among four factors offered in the poll, experience to get things done in Washington was most often named as the most important: 34 percent of primary voters said so. Second most important was being true to core Democratic values, at 22 percent.

Holt and Pallone are Washington veterans and have claimed to be the “true” Democratic progressives in the race. But among voters who labeled experience as the most important factor, Booker won 42 percent support, compared with 15 percent for Pallone, 10 percent for Holt, and 4 percent for Oliver.

Last month, I mentioned the reason Booker would benefit from having Holt in the race. Pallone was already planning to run, having been Lautenberg’s preferred successor anyway. But the fact that Holt threw his hat in the ring only further solidified Booker’s advantage. Holt and Pallone represent adjacent House districts. As such, they will be competing for the same voter base. Yet the Monmouth poll makes clear that even without Holt in the race, Pallone couldn’t take those voters for granted:

Even in Central New Jersey, where Pallone and Holt have their political bases, Booker got 39 percent of the likely primary vote, compared with 19 percent for Pallone and 16 percent for Holt.

That prompted a note of incredulity from Monmouth’s polling director Patrick Murray: “Cory Booker’s lead appears to be impregnable. There is very little in the poll that shows a path for the other candidates to overtake him.” Murray then revealed why the super-PAC ad may redound to Booker’s benefit:

While Booker has often chafed at the “celebrity” label his opponents have tried to slap on him, his overwhelming name recognition is a key factor in his polling and fund-raising lead.

“At the end of the day, New Jersey Democrats would be satisfied with any of these candidates as their nominee for U.S. Senate. They are simply going for the one they feel they know best,” Murray said.

That about sums it up: N.J. Democrats really don’t see much difference between the candidates, but Booker is famous and popular. In addition, Booker’s national profile may convince some N.J. Democrats that his election could end up being a boon to the state’s influence in a way electing Pallone or Holt would not, since Booker would not suffer the anonymity common to freshman senators who don’t have the seniority (or immediate presidential aspirations) they would usually need to receive invitations to the Sunday morning talk shows.

The primary is three weeks away, and that is not much time to make up this ground. There is plenty of legitimate criticism of Booker’s use of social media to enable his reputation to reach heights nationally that it doesn’t locally. (Though it would certainly be unfair to claim that his Twitter activity is a complete waste of time; in the age of big government, there is something to be said for a responsive executive who is easy to contact and joyfully engages his constituents.) But polling shows that name recognition is the surest way to win a primary that voters see as mostly ideologically meaningless. Casting Booker as a celebrity is unlikely to deter those voters.

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N.J. Democrats’ Booker-Induced Chaos

For New Jersey Republicans, one of the disappointing aspects of Chris Christie’s first term as governor has been the lack of intrastate coattails. Christie has notched several impressive policy victories for Republicans, but the state GOP has been unable to turn those victories into success at the ballot box in either house of the state legislature, let alone a Senate challenge to Bob Menendez. That makes Christie’s policy success all the more impressive: unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, Christie’s victories over the public sector unions came without a Republican legislature.

Christie’s one-man conservative show in New Jersey, along with Christie’s high approval rating, is sowing more internal discord within the state’s Democratic Party–and at the highest level yet. Christie’s popularity after his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was enough to convince rising star Cory Booker not to challenge Christie for the governor’s office later this year. But that means that Booker, whose social-media heavy act in Newark is beginning to wear thin, needs something else to do. So he announced that he’s exploring a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. The latter’s term is up in 2014, and Lautenberg is thought to be leaning toward retirement. But he hasn’t announced that yet, and doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by Booker’s decision to try and push him out the door. And there’s another problem: if Lautenberg were to step down, it was widely expected that his chosen successor would be Frank Pallone, a congressman from central New Jersey who has been laying the groundwork for a Senate run.

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For New Jersey Republicans, one of the disappointing aspects of Chris Christie’s first term as governor has been the lack of intrastate coattails. Christie has notched several impressive policy victories for Republicans, but the state GOP has been unable to turn those victories into success at the ballot box in either house of the state legislature, let alone a Senate challenge to Bob Menendez. That makes Christie’s policy success all the more impressive: unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, Christie’s victories over the public sector unions came without a Republican legislature.

Christie’s one-man conservative show in New Jersey, along with Christie’s high approval rating, is sowing more internal discord within the state’s Democratic Party–and at the highest level yet. Christie’s popularity after his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was enough to convince rising star Cory Booker not to challenge Christie for the governor’s office later this year. But that means that Booker, whose social-media heavy act in Newark is beginning to wear thin, needs something else to do. So he announced that he’s exploring a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. The latter’s term is up in 2014, and Lautenberg is thought to be leaning toward retirement. But he hasn’t announced that yet, and doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by Booker’s decision to try and push him out the door. And there’s another problem: if Lautenberg were to step down, it was widely expected that his chosen successor would be Frank Pallone, a congressman from central New Jersey who has been laying the groundwork for a Senate run.

But now Booker appears ready to run whether Lautenberg vacates the seat or not. And that may bring on a third problem (Booker’s quite the trouble maker): whereas Pallone would not have considered challenging Lautenberg in a primary, if Booker challenges Lautenberg then Pallone will almost surely have to throw his hat in the ring, since a three-way primary race might be his only shot to beat Booker.

Thus Booker’s announcement may spur a primary free-for-all that stands a good chance of flattening Lautenberg to bring his career to a rather ignominious end. So it’s no surprise to read this:

Booker said Monday that he still hopes to talk to Lautenberg.

“We’ve reached out to him a number of times,” said Booker, whose second term as mayor ends in 2014. “In fact, I had a plane trip going down to meet with him, but unfortunately with a lot of the challenges going down in Washington, he had to cancel the meeting.”

There is some (recent) history here. Lautenberg was aware of a possible Booker challenge last year, and then came Booker’s criticism of President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, which Booker called “nauseating.” Lautenberg pounced:

“It’s a terrible blow, in my view, for President Obama,” he said. He likened the remark to “sabotage” and said Booker needs to do more to rectify his mistake.

Booker has tried several times since Sunday to walk back the remarks. On “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday night, he expressed anger at Republicans who have turned his statement into campaign fodder.

As for a possible primary run against Booker in 2014, Lautenberg said “he’s welcome to do it” but that his remarks did him great damage.

“Now we have a different record,” said a smiling Lautenberg, who is considering seeking another term.

If Booker does indeed run in 2014, Pallone’s best chance is probably if Lautenberg runs as well, thereby diluting some of Booker’s North Jersey support. If Lautenberg steps down and Booker and Pallone vie for the seat, Booker would most likely be the favorite, though it’s early to gauge just how much headway Pallone has been able to make with county party chairs behind the scenes. Nonetheless, while state Republicans may not be gaining at the ballot box, they have to be enjoying the fact that their current governor is a Republican with such high approval ratings that the state’s top Democratic politicians are at each other’s throats just to avoid challenging Christie.

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