Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s political star is losing some luster in the closing weeks of his bid for Senate in New Jersey, prompting the favored Democrat to step up attacks on his long-shot Republican opponent.
Two consecutive polls of the race show Booker’s lead in the low double digits — down dramatically from late August and early September surveys that showed him leading former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan by between 25 and 35 points.
In an interview with The Hill, Lonegan said it wasn’t surprising polls are tightening because he has been “working absolutely as hard as possible ... pounding away on our message, exposing Cory Booker for what he is.”
Lonegan said Booker is “not the big mythological candidate” that Democrats have touted.
“He made the tragic error of thinking he was the anointed candidate and spent two weeks running around California with the Hollywood elite,” Lonegan said.
Booker’s campaign insists it’s not concerned, but advisers say they plan to run hard in the final two weeks before the Oct. 16 special election to ensure a “comfortable” margin of victory.
Booker released his first negative ad Tuesday targeting Lonegan. The ad, titled “Done,” accuses the Republican of being “too extreme for New Jersey.”
It charges that Lonegan supports privatizing Social Security, banning abortion and favored shutting down the federal government.
Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for Booker, said the Democrat’s campaign had planned all along to focus attention on Lonegan’s positions and that the negativity had nothing to do with recent public polls, which they dispute.
“I think that what we’ve seen is that Mr. Lonegan’s base is to some degree coming home, starting to coalesce around him,” said Griffis.
“We want to be sure at this point that people understand what kind of a candidate Lonegan is.”
Booker entered the race to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) as the prohibitive favorite. He came armed with high name recognition, a cadre of wealthy Hollywood backers and deep support among national Democrats, including President Obama.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the likely voter screen accounts for some of the apparent narrowing of the race. Earlier surveys polled just registered voters.
The newest poll, however, also suggests Lonegan’s attacks on Booker’s perceived preoccupation with celebrity — Hollywood fundraisers have held two events for him during the campaign — are taking their toll.
“The one thing I do know has shrunk significantly is [Booker’s] popularity rating. He has taken a hit. If that keeps going unanswered, we would expect to see the margin shrink even more,” Murray said.
Fifty-four percent of likely voters in the state view Booker favorably in the Monmouth poll, a decline of 7 percentage points. His unfavorability rating increased 13 points.
Booker has faced scrutiny over his business interest, which was subsequently divested, in a tech startup that appeared to be going nowhere. He also endured negative reports about two homes he owned in Newark, one of which has sat empty and in disarray with little attention from the mayor.
Murray said Booker has suffered from being somewhat removed from the campaign trail, bouncing around the nation to raise money, not just for the special primary and general elections, but also the 2014 Senate election in the state.
Booker’s also received criticism for being unavailable to press. His relative silence has allowed a number of negative reports to take hold and feed into Lonegan’s narrative questioning Booker’s integrity.
“That Booker hasn’t made any gains, and that his lead seems to be shrinking is due to the fact that he simply hasn’t been engaged in the race the way his opponent is,” Murray said.
Lonegan said he thinks Booker’s drop in the polls is due to renewed scrutiny over the Democrat’s character and support for his own platform.
“It’s my powerful message that resonates with Americans, particularly with Reagan Democrats, union guys who go to church, as well as the fact that all these myths about [Booker] are melting,” said Lonegan.
While Lonegan is drawing support from fiscal conservatives in the New Jersey suburbs, the state is typically Democratic on social issues. Lonegan, who is pro-life and pro-gun, doesn’t align with much of the electorate on those issues.
Going negative on Lonegan won’t help Booker’s favorables, but they may tamp down Lonegan’s support at the 40-percent ceiling Democrats believe he faces on Oct. 16.
Lonegan says he is confident of victory.
“When we win, it’ll just be earth shaking,” he said.