Meet Cory Booker, America’s Most-Hyped Senator

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 16 2013 10:35 PM

He Is Risen

Cory Booker, America’s most-hyped mayor, becomes its most-hyped senator.

Cory Booker campaigns in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 15, 2013.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The legend of Cory Booker began when he got his ass kicked. Eleven years ago, when he was a 33-year-old social justice attorney turned city councilman, Booker ran for mayor of Newark, N.J. He was a media sensation—a Rhodes scholar who hunger-striked to protest drug dealers and tractor-beamed money out of donors across the river in New York. A documentary about the campaign, eventually titled Street Fight, captured real-time video of Mayor Sharpe James alleging that Booker was a carpetbagger, a Republican, “not black enough” to run the city, and “collaborating with the Jews.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Street Fight was nominated for an Oscar, and Booker never lost another race. Wednesday night, he beat Republican candidate Steve Lonegan to become only the ninth African-American in the U.S. Senate. Along the way, he faced the first challenge to his “narrative” in more than a decade, as reporters challenged his stories of ghetto heroism and hyped polls that showed his 25-point lead shrinking to the high teens. “The bloom is off the rose,” said one Democratic state senator in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s version of the “Booker in disarray” story. “No one could be as good as Cory was perceived to be.”

Marshall Curry, the director of Street Fight, wasn’t surprised by this. “He's never been a bloodthirsty politician,” said Curry of Booker. “He's never been somebody who loves getting in a fight. When you're up against someone who does spoil for a fight, like Sharpe James, like Steve Lonegan, they can do some damage to you.”


Not enough damage, obviously—Booker is now a Meet the Press–friendly senator-in-waiting, unencumbered by the politics of Newark. He has survived the saga of “T-Bone,” the drug dealer who may or may not have been a composite character, and of the sexless direct message he sent to a Twitter follower who happened to be a stripper. What did we learn in this special election?

Pay attention to the boring polls, not just the game-changers. New Jersey’s special election started, unofficially, with the June 3 death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg. One week later, a Quinnipiac poll gave Booker a 27-point lead in a theoretical race against Lonegan, the long-term New Jersey leader of David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity. After Booker won the Democratic primary, two other polls had him up by 35 and 28 points. Then, in late September, disaster—Quinnipiac and Monmouth polls showed Booker up by only 12 and 13 points.

Thus began the “Booker in disarray” storyline. “Booker is underperforming Republican Gov. Chris Christie in a blue state,” noted Maggie Haberman in Politico. “Booker’s missteps have prompted concern among allies who thought the race was a sure thing,” wrote Holly Bailey in Yahoo News. “If Lonegan loses by fewer than 10 points,” wrote Pennsylvania columnist J.D. Mullane, “it will be spun as a big win, given that Booker should have trounced him by two or three times the margin.” Anyone who watched any TV news coverage of the final days learned that the race was closing fast.

It wasn’t. Booker’s average lead over Lonegan remained largely stable for the last three weeks of the race. He took body hits from stories about his investment in the poorly conceived tech company Waywire and about a late-summer surge of murders in Newark, while he was off raising funds. But there’s no evidence that anything like the Twitter-stripper story hurt Booker (only 1 in 5 voters called it “a legitimate issue”), and his favorable numbers remained stable in the high 50s, as much as 20 points higher than Lonegan’s.

“New Jersey Senate elections tend to be in a zone where the Democrat gets between 53 and 59 percent,” said Rep. Rob Andrews, who ran unsuccessfully in a 2008 primary for this seat. “I think it’s kind of an unfair criticism that he’s underperforming if he’s in that range.” That’s spin, but it’s not wrong—the last race for Senate in New Jersey where a candidate cracked 60 percent was 1984, when Bill Bradley ran for re-election. The last race for an open seat, in 2000, ended with a slim 3-point win for the now-despised Jon Corzine.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.