Booker, Lonegan face off in special N.J. Senate election

Democrat Cory Booker, left, and Republican Steve Lonegan shake hands after their first debate in the U.S. Senate campaign on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Trenton, N.J.
AP Photo/Mel Evans

A Wednesday election is an oddity - it almost always a Tuesday, of course. When setting the date,

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., pointed outthis was the soonest possible day to hold the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died earlier this year.

The date probably introduces the only real unknown into the race. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, is favored, solidly up in the polls with strong name ID and a large war chest, along with a D next to his name. (In New Jersey, Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans.) The polling has shown Booker's lead shrinking over the last few weeks, but it's essentially gone from enormous to just plain large.

Of course, votes count, pre-election polls don't. Hoping for the upset is Republican challenger Steve Lonegan, the mayor of Bogota, N.J., whose strategy has been to go hard after to the party's conservative base, campaigning against Obamacare, and alongside such tea party favorites as Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, who don't often turn up in New Jersey.

Lonegan's plan is not a strategy that would ever work in an on-year, general election - too many of the state's voters are moderates. But it is an interesting play given the odd election date: it appears their hope is that the base is fired up and motivated to cast ballots, while the unusual date and/or the expectation of a Booker win keeps turnout down on the Democratic side. It's a long shot, to be sure, but perhaps the best play they could have made in a state where Democrats have such a natural advantage otherwise. There's a usual, boilerplate disclaimer on paragraphs about special elections like this one, where we always say that turnout is key. But this time, given these circumstances, it really really is true. (And we're wishing we hadn't overused the line so many times before.)

When Christie was elected in 2009 (not an analogous contest, but closest we have) Christie narrowly won among moderates and he won independents by two-to-one - which may be a taller order for the Lonegan campaign. Polls suggest Booker has fared far better among independents. But Christie also benefitted from voters' expressed desire for change at the time, and that was a state office - this is a federal one.

With the contest playing out against the backdrop of shutdown and rancor in Washington, the question is whether the D.C. dynamic might offer added motivation for conservatives, though it is more likely to work in Booker's favor: Democrats might be motivated to send one of their own to Washington, and, if Booker wins, it may be that moderate Republicans (of whom there are many in New Jersey) hesitated given Lonegan's strong stances with the conservative base.


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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director