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.”
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.