Booker's burden: High expectations

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s expected victory Wednesday in New Jersey’s special Senate election is buoying national Democrats eager to exploit his star power, and fundraising prowess, on behalf of candidates facing tough reelection fights in 2014.

But party strategists warn it’s imperative Booker also quickly prove his mettle as a Senate workhorse: a future party leader more invested in substance than style.

Booker, 44, remains the heavy favorite in Wednesday’s election despite recent polls showing his lead over Republican Steve Lonegan narrowed into the low double digits in the closing weeks of the campaign.

ADVERTISEMENT
If he wins, he’ll arrive in Washington carrying the burden of expectations he’ll play an outsized role for a Senate rookie, in both politics and policy debates.

That means, Democrats say, Booker will be pressed into campaigning for vulnerable incumbents in 2014 and using his formidable fundraising skills — he raised $11.3 million for his race — to help the party raise big bucks to defend the seven seats Republicans have designated as top targets in their quest to take back the Senate.

Booker could be useful not just for fundraising, but also in rallying the party base, and particularly urban and black voters, in some typically red states where Democrats face serious challenges this cycle, like North Carolina and Louisiana.

“As a senator, Cory Booker will have an incredible opportunity to not only serve his constituents and the country, but help Democrats across the country defeat the Ted Cruz loyalists that are running for the U.S. Senate,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Booker has done his fair share to raise expectations about the impact he’ll have in a capital burdened by political dysfunction.

Booker said he was told by a Senate leader — whom he wouldn’t identify — that “we urgently need you down here, because you are different.”

He said the Democratic leader cited his fluency with the Internet (he is prolific on social media with more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter), his race and his profile as an urban mayor.

Booker said he’s been asked to get “out working for the party” if he wins.

While Democrats feel assured of a Booker victory, strategists will be eyeing his margin for evidence of his political strength — and any signs of weakness.

Booker led Lonegan early in the campaign by more than 30  percentage points in several polls.

But the gap closed following weeks of negative press surrounding personal business interests, flirtatious interactions with a stripper on Twitter, and criticism over ongoing crime and economic struggles in Newark under his leadership.

Booker supporters and staffers are cautious to predict a win margin.

Most believe he’ll win by more than 10 points, but they warn the odd timing of the election — a Wednesday in October — makes it difficult to predict turnout.

A less-than-stellar win on Wednesday could raise questions anew about his political staying power and give credence to critics who said he’s more concerned about celebrity than substance.

Strategists said Booker must respect the traditions of the Senate, which dictate that a junior senator eschew celebrity in favor of hard work.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist active in New York and New Jersey politics, said Booker will have to be aware of the parameters of being a junior senator in a body where experience is king.

“Being unscripted when you’re not subject to the leadership of the Senate is one thing. Being unscripted when you have to answer to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is a major mistake, and Cory Booker is not likely to make those mistakes,” Sheinkopf said.

“He’ll follow the Democrats because he’ll want to move up. He’s very ambitious.”

Jim Manley, a former Senate leadership aide and Democratic strategist, said it’s imperative for Booker to focus on his work in the Senate in the first months of his tenure.

“There will be a place for him to help with fundraising, but priorities one, two and three have to be serving his constituents and getting reelected next fall,” Manley said.

Cementing his status as a hard worker in the Senate will also be important if he is to stave off a serious challenger for 2014, when he’s up for reelection for a full term.

Manley cautioned Booker has to be careful that he doesn’t let his healthy self-regard get the better of him.

“Last time I checked, having a large number of Twitter followers didn’t guarantee you were going to pass legislation,” he said.