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.
You can swing too hard at a glass jaw. Booker deserved to sweat this race out—he hadn’t been seriously challenged, or investigated, since becoming a star. He was so overrated that in 2005, before he’d even won his comeback race for mayor, he was on the short list for a U.S. Senate appointment. When Booker pre-emptively declared against Lautenberg, the senator suggested he needed a “spanking,” and his family has worked hard to present Booker as a show horse.
The GOP’s vessel to take advantage of this was one of the most entertaining jerks in American politics. Steve Lonegan had run for governor in 2005 and 2009, losing primaries while deriding his opponents as toothless moderates. He endorsed Gov. Chris Christie in 2013 because he fretted he’d “be a total asshole” if he didn’t return the favor of Christie’s endorsement.
He was much tougher on liberals. Anytown U.S.A., a 2005 documentary about Lonegan’s final run for mayor of Bogota, N.J., began with a town hall meeting where innocent-looking parents asked Lonegan to keep the high school open, no matter the cost. Lonegan responded by sarcastically applauding. When an unemployed blind man entered the race, Lonegan, who’s also legally blind, chastised him for not finding a job. (Yes, both candidates for this seat were the stars of documentaries released in 2005.)
Lonegan took this approach to the Senate race, deriding Booker for presiding over a “black hole” of a city where “the only birds are vultures,” reminding voters that his opponent had tweeted at a “pole dancer.” He made no attempt whatsoever to moderate his positions. After Booker finally started attacking him as a “right-wing extremist”—the GOP candidate had sarcastically called himself that on camera—Lonegan closed out the race with a Tea Party Express rally starring Sarah Palin and radio host/author/coiner of Hillary Clinton insults Mark Levin and with a press conference featuring three Newark residents who claimed, contra the evidence of witnesses and rent checks, that Booker did not live in the city.
Did Booker err in not attacking Lonegan earlier? “Cory truly thought if he went door-to-door in Newark, he could win people over by talking with them about issues and showing them his soul,” suggested Curry. “He doesn't want to be a negative campaigner. So he might have missed opportunities that his opponent gave him to define himself as a radical Tea Party person. He personally doesn't like negative campaigning, and he doesn't think it's good for his brand.”
National reporters thought the same of Barack Obama. In 2012, when he opened his campaign with a barrage of anti-Romney ads in swing states, the president had to endure many think pieces about how he’d damaged his brand. But he really didn’t. A Romney strategist suggested to me that Obama was protected by the media’s inherent theory that for the first black president to lose would have said something awful about America. Booker might have tested a version of this theory, too. Lonegan, who landed some blows, was too unappealing to take real advantage of Booker’s softness.
“If the Booker campaign had chosen to spend a huge amount of money in two of the most expensive media markets in the country to drive Lonegan down from 42 to 37 percent, he could have,” said Andrews. “But why? Unless you’re betting the spread in Vegas, what’s the point? I doubt he’ll have a serious challenger next year.”
Chris Christie remains invincible. Why is there a Senate election happening on a Wednesday in mid-October? Because Christie scheduled it then, costing the state an estimated $12 million by separating this race from the statewide gubernatorial and legislative elections in three weeks. He has experienced no blowback whatsoever for this maneuver or from his endorsement of Lonegan, holding to a lead in the high 20s over the Democrats’ sacrificial candidate Barbara Buono. He’s simultaneously watched Lonegan prove that his brand of politics can’t even win statewide in a low-turnout special election and watched Booker take his first-ever dings in the national press. In the winter of 2012–2013, some Democrats were bitter at Booker for denying them a real race against Christie. Now they’re glad he didn't.
“I think that the press likes to have a new story,” said Curry. “If the first story was Cory the underdog, well, that lasted a while. Next, the press needed to focus on whatever they could dig up. Nobody wants to keep telling the same story over and over.”