Booker wins New Jersey Senate race

Newark Mayor Cory Booker won the New Jersey Senate special election Wednesday night in an unsurprising finale to a surprisingly contentious race.

With nearly all precincts reporting, Booker had 55 percent of the vote to Lonegan's 44 percent, The Associated Press reported.

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Despite polling that showed the race tightening in the final weeks as negative press and attacks from Lonegan advanced, Booker maintained a double-digit lead and most recently led Lonegan by 14 points in a Tuesday poll.

Booker will replace interim Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa (R) and return the Democratic majority to 10 seats, which was depleted when Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died in June. He'll hold the historic title of New Jersey's first black senator.

In his victory speech, Booker lauded voters for heading to the polls despite a widespread dissatisfaction with politics.

“Despite the cynicism and the negativity we often see on TV, despite a special election, New Jerseyans, hundreds of thousands, rejected all that and came out and voted,” he said.

Still, turnout was, as expected, low, with about 1.2 million voters, of nearly 5.5 million registered voters in New Jersey, hitting the polls.

Lonegan, in his concession speech, shrugged off his loss.

“I said to myself, who wants that job anyway?” he joked.

Booker will join the Senate with unusually high expectations for a junior senator, as Democratic leaders have already indicated they want him to use his formidable fundraising talents to aid vulnerable Democrats in 2014.

But he's been dogged by critics saying that he's more celebrity than substance, with a prolific social media presence that catapulted his star power.

Speaking Thursday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Booker said President Obama phoned him after the win to offer encouragement.

“I appreciate that the president has a complicated set of problems. He left me an incredibly encouraging message on my voicemail last night after midnight,” Booker said when asked about his opinion of Obama.

“Before I start pontificating about what the president should do, I want to start figuring out what Cory Booker can do to make a dramatic difference for folks in New Jersey.”

Working hard, observers and Booker supporters say, will help the senator-elect move past the spate of negative press he's received in recent weeks. Booker faced scrutiny of his record as mayor of Newark, including an investment in a flailing startup called Waywire, dilapidated homes he owned in Newark, a flirtatious interaction with a stripper on Twitter and whether his celebrity connections truly enriched his city.

Those celebrity connections, however, helped him outraise Lonegan 8-to-1 and rake in $11.2 million, $8.8 million of which he spent on the race, as of late September.

Actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, actress Jennifer Garner and talk show host Oprah Winfrey, as well as Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Stephen Spielberg, were a few of the stars who contributed to Booker's campaign. 

Lonegan, for his part, struggled to raise money and draw attention throughout his campaign, though he did nab a number of high-profile endorsements in the final weeks as polling showed the race to be closer than expected. Tea Party leader Sarah Palin made a stop for him in New Jersey, and both Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) also hit the trail for the underdog.

But both Lonegan and his campaign were prone to missteps, with the candidate calling Booker's dismissal of speculation over his sexuality "weird" at one point, and a campaign adviser drawing headlines in the final weeks for his profanity-laden musings about Booker's sexuality.

The Booker campaign largely ignored Lonegan's comments and instead knocked him as "too extreme" for New Jersey as the campaign turned negative in its final weeks.

Indeed, New Jersey — which chose President Obama with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2012 and hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate in more than 40 years — leaned too far Democratic for the deeply conservative Lonegan to gain much traction.

Booker's win was so widely expected that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out a press release congratulating Booker before the AP had called the race and with just a fraction of precincts reporting.

“Cory Booker is going to be a great Senator for New Jersey, and I congratulate him on his victory tonight," DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet (Colo.) said in the statement.

Bennet nodded to the fact that Booker will be useful on the campaign trail, noting that, as senator, "Cory will have an incredible opportunity not only to serve his constituents and the country, but also to help Democrats across the country defeat the [Sen.] Ted Cruz [R-Texas] loyalists who are running for the US Senate."

And he declared that “tonight’s election is a repudiation of the Tea Party’s reckless agenda and a Republican party that grants too much influence to people on the fringes."

— Rebecca Shabad contributed to this report, which was updated on Thursday at 8:11 a.m.